Tom Wesselmann - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "I find sometimes I get so excited working, especially when starting new ideas; I get so excited that I get uncomfortable. It almost feels dangerous, like I’m flirting with something dangerous."
    —Tom Wesselmann

    Emerging to auction for the first time since its creation, the present work is an iconic iteration of Tom Wesselmann’s celebrated series of Mouth paintings. Executed in November 1967, a watershed year for the artist, Mouth #14 (Marilyn) is among the early pivotal works in the series that were conceived in tandem with Wesselmann’s first Smoker paintings. Immersing the viewer into a hypnotic erotism and graphic intensity that characterizes the best of Wesselmann’s works, here the mouth of Marilyn Monroe is transformed into a pair of sultry scarlet lips, her blonde strands of hair evoking sensual flames. Exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery the year of its creation, Mouth #14 (Marilyn) marks the apex of the Wesselmann’s mid-career painterly investigations that established him at the forefront of the Pop vanguard.


    Among the artist’s most highly sought after works, Wesselmann’s Mouth paintings commenced in the mid-1960s as a natural extension of his Great American Nude series. Beginning with the Great American Nudes in 1961, Wesselmann placed youthful female nudes in vibrantly rendered settings while abstracting the figural form and, by the mid-decade, increasingly honed his focus on specific parts of the body. This gradual simplification led to his singular focus on mouths in the titular series initiated in 1965. The Mouth paintings eventually birthed the Smoker series in the year of the present work’s creation, when his friend and model Peggy Sarno paused for a cigarette during a session, marking the pivotal moment when Wesselmann became fascinated with smoke as a subject. Coinciding with this legendary account, the conception of Mouth #14 (Marilyn) may be viewed in parallel to this pivotal juncture. Created after Mouth #11, April 1967, Dallas Museum of Art—the first mouth with a cigarette—and in the same month as Smoker #1 (Mouth #12), Museum of Modern Art—the first work to include both a cigarette and smoke—the present work signals to Wesselmann’s interest in ephemeral smoke in the fiery wisps of hair that float across the lushly rendered lips.


    Marilyn Monroe, 1946. Image: André de Dienes/MUUS Collection


    Though Wesselmann began exploring shaped canvases in 1964 with his Great American Nudes, the artist advanced his investigations with the medium in the Mouth series. This body of work “represented a further evolution in the shaped canvas: a larger scale, closer views, and concentration on body parts,” he noted in his autobiography.”i As Mouth #14 (Marilyn) demonstrates, working on a grand scale allowed Wesselmann to enhance the sensational visual impact of his shaped canvases—now, its immersive proportions could subsume the viewer into an all-encompassing realm of the visceral and verboten. This breakthrough worked in tandem with his increasingly reductive and clarified style as “the paintings themselves took on a more sculptural format as the areas surrounding the objects were eliminated,” as Sam Hunter observed.ii In Mouth #14 (Marilyn), the perpendicular movement of the waving hair over the feminine mouth both engulf and unfurl our imagination as the artist disembodies the subject by eschewing further indicators of Marilyn. It is only by Wesselmann’s unique inclusion of her name in the title that we begin to recognize these lips as those of the iconic Hollywood starlet.


    Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Image: Licensed by DACS/Artimage, Artwork: © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Immediately recalling Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962, the present work is at once an homage to Marilyn’s iconic smile and an embodiment of the relationship between advertising and celebrity. Like Warhol, Wesselmann’s embracement of sexual iconography and American popular culture in the pursuit of beauty made Marilyn the perfect choice for his artistic investigations. Mouth #14 (Marilyn) manifests the artist’s unique Pop lexicon in approaching the universal icon, not through visual repetition as Warhol’s iteration but through visual isolation with intense singularity. In line with the previously noted disembodiment of his subject, Wesselmann along with many of his contemporaries rejected critics’ stifling views on Pop Art. “They really worship Marilyn Monroe and Coca Cola,” as he once expressed. “The importance people attach to things an artist uses is irrelevant...I use a billboard picture because it is real, special representations of something, not because it is from a billboard. Advertising images excite me mainly because of what I can make from them.”iii

  • Mouth Paintings in Museum Collections

  • i Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 49.
    ii Sam Hunter, “Remembering Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004): And His Alter Ego, Slim Stealingworth,” American Art, vol. 19, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 110.
    iii Lucy R. Lippard, Pop Art, London, 1966, p. 80.

    • Provenance

      Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
      Maria and Conrad Janis, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in February 1968)
      PaceWildenstein, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004

    • Exhibited

      New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, An Exhibition: Homage to Marilyn Monroe, December 6–30, 1967

    • Literature

      Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 170 (illustrated)
      Christin J. Mamiya, Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market, Austin, 1992, p. 99
      Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, no. 54, p. 127 (illustrated, p. 66)
      Linda Bolton, Art Revolutions: Pop Art, London, 2000, p. 17 (illustrated)
      Beth McGovern, "Portrait of the Artist," Hiram, vol. 74, no. 2, Spring 2002, p. 11 (illustrated)
      Patricia Pate Havlice, World Painting Index: Third Supplement, 1990-1999, vol. I, Oxford, 2003, p. 1155
      Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., MACRO Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome, 2005, p. 313 (illustrated, p. 98)
      Sam Hunter, "Remembering Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004): And His Alter Ego, Slim Stealingworth," American Art, vol. 19, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 110
      John Wilmerding, Tom Wesselmann: His Voice and Vision, New York, 2008, p. 125 (illustrated, p. 126)

    • 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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Property from an Important Florida Collection


Mouth #14 (Marilyn)

signed and dated "Wesselmann 67" on the overlap
oil on shaped canvas
60 x 108 in. (152.4 x 274.3 cm)
Painted in 1967.

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

$3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for $3,236,500

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Global Managing Director and Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1278

Carolyn Mayer
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+1 212 940 1206


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022