Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Tom Wesselmann Takes a Vacation

With the success of his Great American Nude series in the early 1960s, Tom Wesselmann could finally afford a larger studio. With a new studio came larger work and longer hours. Wesselmann explained, “I couldn’t pull myself away from the studio when it came time to go home at night. My fingernails would literally scrape on the tableI didn’t want to leave. I would go home and lie in bed and plot what I was going to do the next day. I couldn’t wait to get back to the studio, and the next morning I would rush there. It became a circular frenzy.”

“He’s the workaholic of the art world,” recalled his wife Claire Wesselmann [Note: Claire is sharing more memories about Tom at the DAM on July 9]. “He is passionate about his art, passionate about life in general, very sensitive to people, and very work oriented. He once said that he would work seven days a week and I told him not if he wanted a wife. That it would have to be a little bit less than that. He’s in love with his art and does it with great intensity and devotion.”

Wesselmann’s obsessive working habits allowed him to work on many projects at the same time. In the mid-1960s he was prolific, working on multiple series including his Great American Nudes, Still Lifes, Landscapes, Interiors, and Mouths. “It sounds naïve,” Wesselmann said, “but it never occurred to me to take a vacation or just stop work for a period.”

That changed in 1966 when Wesselmann was invited to Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a summer getaway. It was the first time he realized that he could go someplace other than New York City. But instead of relaxing, Wesselmann used this time away from his studio to form ideas that would push his work even further. The end product was a series inspired by women lying on the beach, whether it was a foot blown up to monumental proportions or the use of a female body to frame the ocean scenery. It was not the subject matter necessarily that changed the way Wesselmann worked, it was his treatment of the canvas. For the first time, he began to experiment with shaped canvases and the use of the white wall behind the canvas to complete the image. This technique would prove to be the foundation for some of Wesselmann’s most innovative and groundbreaking work yetthe Steel Drawings.

 

Image Credit: Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Seascape #22, 1967. Oil on shaped canvas; 90 3/4 x 59 1/4 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.

Danielle Stephens is the master teacher for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. She has been with the DAM since June 2013.