Tom Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 23, 1931. He attended Hiram College in Ohio from 1949 to 1951 before entering the University of Cincinnati. In 1953 his studies were interrupted by a two-year enlistment in the army, during which time he began drawing cartoons. He returned to the university in 1954 and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1956; during this time he decided to pursue a career in cartooning and so enrolled at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. After graduation he moved to New York City, where he was accepted into the Cooper Union and where his focus shifted dramatically to fine art; he received his diploma in 1959.
Wesselmann became one of the leading American Pop artists of the 1960s, rejecting abstract expressionism in favor of the classical representations of the nude, still life, and landscape. He created collages and assemblages incorporating everyday objects and advertising ephemera in an effort to make images as powerful as the abstract expressionism he admired. He is perhaps best known for his Great American Nude series with their fat forms and intense colors.
In the seventies, Wesselmann continued to explore the ideas and media which had preoccupied him during the Sixties. Most significantly, his large Standing Still Life series, composed of free standing shaped canvases, showed small intimate objects on a grand scale. In 1980 Wesselmann, using the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth, wrote an autobiography documenting the evolution of his artistic work. He continued exploring shaped canvases (first exhibited in the 1960s) and began creating his first works in metal. He instigated the development of a laser-cutting application, which would allow him to make a faithful translation of his drawings in cut-out metal. The 1990s and early 2000s saw the artist expanding on these themes, creating abstract three-dimensional images that he described as “going back to what I had desperately been aiming for in 1959.” He had indeed come full circle. In his final years he returned to the female form in his Sunset Nudes series of oil paintings on canvas, whose bold compositions, abstract imagery, and sanguine moods often recall the odalisques of Henri Matisse.
Wesselmann worked in New York City for more than four decades. He lived in New York City with his wife, Claire, daughters Jenny and Kate, and son Lane. He died there on December 17, 2004.