Tom Wesselmann - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “I think a good dealer is also a collector.”
    —Rosa Esman

    Rosa and Aaron Esman assembled an outstanding collection of Modern, Post-War, and Contemporary art over the course of their seventy-year marriage. The collection’s highlights mirror that of Rosa’s career as a gallerist and edition publisher with the strong support of Aaron, a psychoanalyst and passionate collector, with interests in Modernism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, and American Pop Art taking center stage. Rosa began publishing portfolios of prints by contemporary artists in the 1960s. Editions such as the New York Ten Portfolio, 1965, and Ten from Leo Castelli, 1967, which featured works by rising contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, and helped pioneer the field of artist’s editions and multiples. Her eponymous gallery exhibited in Manhattan for over twenty years, and she was a founding partner of Ubu Gallery, which is still in operation today.


    When asked about her wide artistic tastes in 2009, Rosa emphasized her love of drawing, “the
    quintessential bit of the art,” which can be seen across the Esman collection, regardless of genre.

    Art was one of several passions that Rosa and Aaron shared, even when they began dating in the early 1950s. In 1952, they bought their first artwork together, a drawing by Miró, initiating their shared pursuit of inspired collecting that would continue for the rest of their lives. Rosa recalled: “sometimes we look at something, and I say, ‘Oh, isn’t that marvelous?’ and Aaron would respond, ‘It’s for us.’”i Founded in lifelong love, the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman gives a unique vision of the art movements of the 20th century that shaped New York’s art scene.


    The artist in his second studio, 157 Bleecker Street, New York, c. 1964. Image: Jerry Goodman

    “It was op and pop. And it was just anybody who was around whom I liked whom I knew.”
    —Rosa Esman on the creation of the New York Ten Portfolio
    Tom Wesselmann’s Little Still Life #20 is a preparatory study for the New York Ten portfolio, envisioned by Rosa Esman’s Tanglewood Press in 1965. Described by Rosa as a mix of “op and pop” artists, the portfolio included editioned works by ten New York-based artists whose artistic practices both differed from and complemented one another. In addition to Wesselmann, the portfolio included works by Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Nicholas Krushenick, Robert Kulicke, Mon Levinson, and George Segal. Each artist created an editioned print of 100 using just three colors, and the portfolio was a huge success, with all prints selling out within six months.

    “I asked [Claes Oldenburg] if he would ever think of doing a print if I would put together a bunch of artists who were compatible with him. And he said sure. So I said, ‘What would you do this for?’ And he said, ‘A bottle of whisky.’ And I thought, well, that sounds easy.”
    —Rosa Esman
    Going on to create a number of other print portfolios, including New York International, 1965-1966, 11 Pop Artists, Volumes I, II, and III, 1965-1966 and Ten from Leo Castelli, 1967, Rosa Esman continued innovating and celebrating the artists of the day throughout her career. These portfolios, of which the New York Ten was her first, made contemporary art more approachable and affordable to young collectors, like the Esmans themselves. A handful of the works in Rosa and Aaron’s collection are the historic and unique originals used in the making of such prints, including Wesselmann’s Little Still Life #20.


    Made throughout the 1960s, Wesselmann's earliest unique Still Life works captured the essence of contemporary life and advanced an art that "could be defined as specifically American."i The present work and subsequent print employ an abstracted vernacular, distilling popular objects into basic elements of form and color. Variations of the staged composition used in the present work depict more obvious forms including apples with stems, imperfectly-shaped oranges and radios with legs. Here, Wesselmann has instead rendered a perfect, orange circle with a hint of texture, paired with a stylized blue pattern we know to be a radio realized simply through a combination of lines and circles. Both of these objects are constructed of three-dimensional wood, sitting atop a white and red gridded background, as if balancing perfectly on their shelf below. In eliminating recognizable pop-cultural references in favor of patterned shapes and flattened forms, Wesselmann plays with the traditional notions of the still life. In the final editioned print created for the portfolio, the artist takes goes a step further, eliminaring color entirely, leaving behind simply the ghostly embossing of his forms. The result is a completely abstracted still life, unique in its presence and composition.


    Tom Wesselmann, Still Life from New York Ten, 1965. Artwork: © 2023 Estate of Tom Wesselmann / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 



    i Rosa Esman, interviewed by James McElhinney, "Oral History Interview with Rosa Esman," Archives of American Art, June 9–16, 2009, online.

    iiMarco Livingstone, Tom Wesselmann: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Life Limited, Tokyo, 1993, p. 39.

    • Provenance

      Gifted by the artist to Rosa and Aaron Esman
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Artist Biography

      Tom Wesselmann

      American • 1931 - 2004

      As a former cartoonist and leading figure of the Pop Art movement, Tom Wesselmann spent many years of his life repurposing popular imagery to produce small to large-scale works that burst with color. Active at a time when artists were moving away from the realism of figurative painting and growing increasingly interested in abstraction, Wesselmann opted for an antithetical approach: He took elements of city life that were both sensual and practical and represented them in a way that mirrored Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol's own methodologies.

      Wesselmann considered pop culture objects as exclusively visual elements and incorporated them in his works as pure containers of bold color. This color palette became the foundation for his now-iconic suggestive figurative canvases, often depicting reclining nudes or women's lips balancing a cigarette.

      View More Works

Property from the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman


Little Still Life #20

incised "Wesselmann 64" lower right; signed, titled and dedicated "LITTLE STILL LIFE #20 10/64 STUDY FOR ROSA ESMAN EMBOSSED PRINT Wesselmann" on the reverse
acrylic on wood
17 x 22 x 7/8 in. (43.2 x 55.9 x 2.2 cm)
Executed in 1964.

Please note that this work will be included in the Tom Wesselmann Digital Corpus published by the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, and will be included in their forthcoming Tom Wesselmann Digital Catalogue Raisonné.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $190,500

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan

Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023