Tom Wesselmann - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Francis and Sydney Lewis Collection, Richmond, acquired from the artist, 1969
    Private Collection, California
    Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Lynchburg, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph Macon Woman's College, Realism in a Post-Modern World: Selections from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection

  • Catalogue Essay

    “The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art. I think I have succeeded, but there is still a lot further to go.” Tom Wesselmann, 1985

    In a vibrant hard-edge style, Wesselmann depicts a still life in an intimate tableau: a bouquet of roses, a zesty orange, a cerulean telephone and a woman’s breast crowd the picture plane, each element intimately magnified. Preliminary Painting for Tit and Telephone combines both still life and nude, Wesselmann’s two major fascinations after his conscious decision to move away from abstraction in 1959.

    Along with Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, Wesselmann felt that he had little to add to the triumphs of Abstract Expressionism and instead turned to figuration and the visual potential of popular imagery as a means of finding a new direction. He did not wish to overturn the traditional notions of painting and actually regarded himself as a formalist rather than a Pop iconoclast. "When I made the decision in 1959 that I was not going to be an abstract painter, that I was going to be a representational painter, I had absolutely no enthusiasm about any particular subject or direction or anything. I was starting from absolute zero. And in choosing representational painting, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still lives, landscapes, interiors, portraits, etc. It didn't take long before I began to follow my most active interests: nudes and still lives." (T. Wesselmann, quoted in Marco Livingstone, "Telling it like it is", Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., 1996, p. 10.)

    As a sole still life, it is brilliantly constructed—the orange’s perfectly rotund shape echoes the rounded breast and nipple—rendering all aspects of it inanimate. Such inanimacy in human form at first seems misogynistic, offensive by removing the woman’s subjectivity. But in his autobiographical monograph under the alter-ego guise of Slim Stealingworth, Wesselmann wrote, “Personality would interfere with the bluntness of the fact of the nude. When body features were included, they were those important to erotic simplification, like lips and nipples. There was no modelling, no hint at dimension. Simply drawn lines were virtually a collage element- the addition of drawing to the painting. Historically, the nude as a subject has a somewhat intimate and personal relationship to the viewer. Wesselmann’s nudes transcended these characteristics. They abandoned human relationships and as a presence became more blunt and aggressive.” (S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, 1980, New York, pp. 23-24). Truly, Wesselmann transformed the female nude into a symbol of Pop Art and sexual liberation of the 1960s. In the same way that Andy Warhol rendered the soup can to both higher meaning and meaninglessness, Wesselmann’s incessant reiterations of the nude through the lens of Pop at once dehumanizes the body as well as elevates it.

    Although Wesselmann’s nudes may be critiqued as lacking autonomy through their absence of identity, in Preliminary Painting for Tit and Telephone, the breast functions as equally an autonomous object as the telephone, in that it is not part of the larger woman. In this way, the nude expands to still life: it is representational, but also just what it is—an object. By removing it of its seductive mystique it becomes that much more sexualized. And yet, paradoxically, it is removed of the sexual by being removed from the body. Wesselmann has remarked upon that metonymy he created: “The tit took the place of the nude in effect [and] was the whole subject of the painting.” (T. Wesselmann in interview with Irving Sandler, 1984)

    Indeed, Wesselmann’s nudes are not so much women but studies of sexuality itself. The single breast allows a manifestation of desire in just one symbolic segment of the female nude. Wesselmann went on to explore this theme further in his only foray into conceptual art: Bedroom Tit Box, in which he painted an interior in a three-dimensional box, and hired a live model to lower her breast into a hole in the box, appearing to the viewer as a suspended tit, but in actuality belonging to a nude model hidden cleverly behind the walls of the gallery.

    Though the breast is, in Wesselmann’s words “in your face” (T. Buschsteiner & O. Letze, eds., Tom Wesselmann, Ostfildern, 1996), Preliminary Painting for Tit and Telephone is much more formally concerned than it is interested in content. Wesselmann explained that the sexuality was a tool for him through which to push forward in his work. “Originally [eroticism] was part of my work like Abstract Expressionist brushwork was: it was—we didn’t have the expression then—‘in your face’. Since I couldn’t use the Abstract Expressionist brushwork anymore—I had dropped that—I had to find other ways of making the painting, the image, aggressive. And moving forward like that—Abstract Expressionist paintings were always moving forward, and the shapes were constantly off the canvas, in your eye, in your face—eroticism was one of the tools for me to try to accomplish that.” (T. Buschsteiner & O. Letze, eds., Tom Wesselmann, Ostfildern, 1996)

    Over the course of his career, no motif would become more closely associated with Wesselmann’s work than the female nude. It was a strategy used to address his own sexual preoccupations and for replicating the confrontational power found in de Kooning’s women, which he greatly admired. However, the importance of this strategy declined as the depictions became more explicit. Nevertheless, it was this increasing explicitness and the denied identity of the female figures that would serve to generate unintended controversy as the sexual revolution of the 1960s transitioned into second-wave feminism of the 1970s.

  • 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.

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Preliminary Painting for Tit and Telephone

oil on canvas
28 1/2 x 36 in. (72.4 x 91.4 cm)
Signed, titled and dated "PRELIMINARY BEDROOM PAINTING FOR TIT AND TELEPHONE 1968 Wesselmann" on the reverse stretcher bar; further signed and dated "Wesselmann 68" lower left.

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $965,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm