Talking about art: an interview with Mr. Tom Wesselmann by Živa Škodlar Vujić

Tom Wesselmann Monica Nude with Lichtenstein 1510

Q: I wanted to ask you when did you decide to paint, because I saw you graduated from psychology. Was that a late decision or was it always there?

A: I didn’t have any idea that I wanted to be an artist or then had much of an idea that there were artists. This sounds silly but… I’m from Ohio. Iliked to play sports and stuff when I was growing up. The only artist I’ve ever been exposed to was Norman Rockwell on a Sunday Evening Post cover. I didn’t know there was an important teeming world of art going on. I came to New York City to go to Art School but not for art but for cartoons. I was always interested in humor. My aspirations were to be a New Yorker cartoonist. Daily cartoonist. I could get the gags but I couldn’t draw very well. So I came to that school to help me stall for time while I tought myself to draw. On a G.I. bill, which gave me free education for four years.
But in a course of going to Cooper Union School…They got me on to the world of ideas. I never knew about this before. Books… People write books out there. I didn’t know that. I didn’t read much. So I suddenly got on fire with learning and using my brainvand reading and all that.
At the same time I was introduced to… I’ve been in New York City… To all that art. De Kooning sort of art. De Kooning was tho one I seized on most as being my idol. So there wasn’t until that point in 1958 – I was aabout to graduate the next year – that I realised I might want to be a painter. So when I graduated, I still didn’t know, but I was on fire to do it. But I didn’t know if I had enough need. And if you dindn’t have enough need, you were wasting your time. But I was on fire for without realizing that already fire was burning. And I found out the more I painted the more I needed to paint… The more I needed to paint the more I painted… And it just got out of control.
So that’s 1959. That’s when I really started. I graduated from Art School, started with an idea of being an artist at this point. Rather late, because I was already 28 years old. I was a veteran in this stuff. So… That’s it.

Q: I see. Rather interesting though. And there’s another thing that I always wanted to ask you.Is sex very important to you? As a theme or was that only the result and a kind of special statement…at the time? A kind of political statement? You are using these themes or some of the details mixed with still-lifes, in my view, very humoresque asamblages in most of your paintings… Or was it maybe a special statement at the time? A kind of political statement? Because America is inour view very partian.. Or was it only result of the years, which were going on? Sixties…

A: Not an easy question. It is a complicated question. So it’s impossible to answer it simple. When I come under the spell of De Kooning. I was disdainful of any subject matter, any subject. I wanted to be an abstract painter like De Kooning. But then I found out that I couldn’t; that there already was a De Kooning. I had to accept some kind of a subject matter otherwise what I was going to do it. I thought I had to go in a direct opposite direction from De Kooning. He was big artist, I was little. He was loose, I was going to work tight. He was abstract, I needed figure. So everything I followed was in opposite way from De Kooning.

Q: You were very intelligent then. You knew that you should do something special.

A: Definitely. That was without question. But it shows as my subject matter to start really with history of art. So to me that was the nude, the still life, the landscape…

Q: But I can see that through your paintings also from landscape to other things, reminiscences…

A: There is no question that from the early on there was the nude, the landscape etc. It was the nude. I built my fundation on it. I don’t know exactly why because it certainly was one of the elements, my first marriage just ended… I was turned loose a little bit. Sex is no more important to me that to average… It is. It is as important to me as it is to everybody.

Q: I would say that some artists agree that this is the greatest motivation in an artistic creativity. The sexuality.

A: Everything broke up at that point. Even my marriage broke up because the prime motivator was an interest in my subject matter. But not that I needed any more push. Everybody’s got that.
The thing is I had to take it in such way to make it exciting to me as De Kooning painting was to me. So I was going to deal with… The first thing I dealt with was… On the wall of my bedroom… For a couple of years I had it – Oust Memo A seated figure next to my window.
So my whole first year of paintings were based on all that… I call them portrait collages. There was almost always a window view and a person sitting in front of it. So that was a whole year of that. And then I started doing nudes. The nudes were just generalized nudes like anybodies nudes except that had a tendency to be more confrontational, more blunt… There was no question about…

Q: Because of pin-up times coming up? With Playboy blondes? You wanted to make some references about American…?

A: That had nothing to do with that. It was more the fact that… One thing that drew me into painting was in art school, was painting as aggression. As an aggressive act. It was not a docile thing. And I felt the abstract expressions for aggressive and their imagery where they put it down to a great deal… Their forms were almost always coming forward, pushing against the edges, especially with De Kooning… I wanted to accomplish that. So my nudes were going to be aggressive. Tahts why a number of my early nudes I used shaved pubic areas. I thought it would be more aggressive. Some people thought it was less aggressive.
So I empasized those things that would make the image more aggressive that in the past. So the legs would be spread, pubic showing. I simplified the elements down to all the idea to be pertinent. Mouth, nipples, pubic. That’s all.
This grew a little more sophisticated with time because it got more and more tensions that go with it. I did that from the start but more so with the time passed.
And when I started still-life… That was a different kind of animal. But still it was my work and on top of that… At this point I’m still nervous to college. I did nudes in was very interested in color. But I always painted the nudes myself. There was one or two exceptions. But I still intended to use collage more. I did a giant still-lives, I got… Billboard actually sent to me: I saw your billboard, a 10 feet high ice cream sundae. Can I get it? So I built still-lives on collage more that point, nudes on more paint than collage. Then I came to the point, when I felt it was time to get rid of the collage, it was time to get on more responsibility. I didn’t want to paint because I didn’t have any point of view. Being a painter then… Any point of view… I didn’t care how it was painted; I didn’t really care about it. It was a simple feeling – the sky is blue, grass is green. Leave me alone; I don’t want to know. But then when I had to start painting things myself I had the inventive. I dropped all collage. I think it was in 1964. Around there. I painted everything. The nudes became more…

Q: Nudes became nearly more like still-lives. In a way…

A: Here, what happened with the nudes. First of all, the nudes… Around the middle of the 60′ I got tired of the nudes. Tired of the scale.

Q: Yes, you said you were chocked with nudes. Why?

A: All the time. Ask what people think of me. As all I was doing was nudes. Now this is a very important change. What I didn’t like about nudes was that I was always stuck with elements around being small, apple… Nudes set the tone. So I came in close, just on a breast. So that apple could be that big. So that it could all change scale. I like to push the graphic elements in size. So the nudes become a means to continue the nude but in a completely different scale. That was it. That led to the Smokers and all that too.
When I started with nudes and I was interested in sex the nudes hardly had… They had their own momentum. They didn’t need my sex drive, one way or the other. It didn’t hurt at the beginning but once I got rolling… Inmaterial, try me with another.

Q: It’s interesting how you are cutting things. Like on a screen. The perspective of your paintings is reminding me sometimes of someone who should work with a camera… You have very “camera view”, I would say… Are you doing this subconsciously or are you building the painting composition that way that you are thinking how it should look like?

A: I’m not conscious of whatever. It’s not conscious. I rely greatly on drawing a composition.

Q: Do you first draw everything?

A: Yes. I rely a great deal on drawing. Great deal. In fact on those little color pencil pieces I did… That’s in fact all drawn. When I make changes, it’s always drawing changes.

Q: Did you always do that way? First drawing and then…?

A: All my work started with small studies, which always started with drawings. Always. I can hardly think of an exception. Of a drawing of my mouth or a model or whatever. And then I would change that as I did it in color it and build it up in a study. But it is all still drawing oriented. But it’s always hard to answer this question.

Q: So, what do you think about European art or America?

A: I can’t throw an answer. I don’t like to make a distinction between American and European. This is continuum. I feel part of the present and part of the past. And the whole lot in the past. That reminds me… When I was at the Arts School in Cooper we went to see… All young artists always do it. Ah, he sucks. About Picasso… Ah, he sucks. Then we saw his show of the modern… My knees buckled. I mean my God… It was staggering, overwhelming, priceless.
I do find one thing. You could find that an awful lot of American artists who do things in particular blunt, crude, shorthand ways. And then you happen to turn a page in a European book and there’s this guy who works just like that. It’s nothing. America suddenly brings some miraculus change. In the 60’s. And the 50’s. That was important, huge, big… But miraculous? I wouldn’t say that. People aren’t that different anyway generally. They can unfold and out of each other, like a flower. Over years. Many years.

Q: Yes, but you were never very much of the group, of the pop group.

A: Oh, I tried not to be. But they kept molding me into. I used to refuse to be. There was exhibition once in London. I refused to be in this show, because they used the term pop.

Q: Why did you? Why did you feel different?

A: At the beginning I didn’t mind the word pop cause I thought it was a descriptive word for the next stage in representational things. And I said okay, I’m using all these things, okay. But then I realised how much importance the public atttached to these things. That Warhol became the preemptive. That they overreact, they make too much of them. I wasn’t using them because of what they employed by the culture. I was using because of their physical intensity. Likegiant billboards. You couldn’t get that kind of collage. So it was a magnificent collage material. But I didn’t use it because it meant anything. I used it because holy Christ it was a beautiful thing.
Rauschenberg once said to me: You know, you got to accept Coca Cola. But I didn’t accept it anything other than the fact that in one of my things I used a Coce here because I needed something that would be like red. Something that’s strong. And I had it. Bang, there it is. But I didn’t use it because it was a popular drink in America and all that.
And some European artists came and harangued me for using the products of bourgeois society and touting them, promoting them. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I’m not promoting them but I’m using them, yes of course I am. So what.

Q: Yes. You always wanted to get away from theese definitions in fact?

A: Once i realized that I didn’t like that… The public mind, pop art they thought of Warhol, Coca Cola, mother’s pie, all kinds of this structure work inside it. I don’t like this because it’s coincidental to me. I don’t use it because i didn’t like that. I wanted to stop being called that. In my book, the one I wrote you won’t even find the word pop. It doesen’t exist. It wasn’t important thing to be left out. The guy in London said for the show I can always get works of art for this type of shit.
Now I don’t care. I don’t want to fight anymore. I care but I don’t bother.
That Picasso book… But I don’t know much more than that. Cause I’m too busy painting. I’m making my own stuff. I don’t really care that much. I’m woefully lacking in… In background breadth, beacause I’m overly preoccupied with myself right now.
And if I look at Matisse as… No, that wouldn’t be true. So, right now i’m looking at Matisse because I’m using him. His paintings.

Q: And Picasso as well?

A: Yes. Of course I read some Picasso books on Matisse. They are wonderful. So I can’t say… I do have areas of interest but they don’t extend to too many artists. And with me it’s everything is making my paintings. I don’t like to do prints, cutting back on prints. So I devote my time to make paintings. I don’t want to do other things because painting is what’s all about. I don’t draw much, never did. I hate drawing. Drawing for me was always drawing from the nude. That was terribly frustrating. I could never make a drawing of the nude as beautifil as she is. The nude was too beautiful that’s all I can say. So now I draw from my head, which is much easier. Much less frustrating. But even then, all the time I drew only because I need drawings for my painting. Sorry to say this because drawing can be fun. But I rather spend my fun time painting.

Q: How are you using your colors? How is it that they are in a way so flat on the surface? Why did you decide this way? That the paintings are in fact all somehow with presence here, in front?

A: Early on, a long time ago, I wanted to make my colors, my painted areas flat. To remove poetry of any kind. That was more American than European. I was getting rid of poetry.
And I liked this… I was always after intensity; intensity was a key word for me. I wanted to be as intense as possible.
And I like the way they work together. People say for the nudes why I always only use the mouth and the nipple, that’s it. They think I’m a sexist or something. But I’m not painting a nude woman; I’m painting a body. My answer is always that anything other than those elements these slow down the action of the painting. I say this in a way the nuance of color that tend to slow down the things alittle bit. They don’t bounce around as much as they should. But I’m still kind of drawn to them. I do all my mixing on the canvas. With a brush. So if I wan’t skin I put white up, I put yellow up, I put red up and I… So in effect I’m making a nice variety surface. And I keep brushing and brushing and brushing until no one notice that. Except from a close up where you see it’s not uniform. So far I’ve been subtle about it but maybe I’m on a verge of a change. Maybe. Maybe. I would say in a couple of years? Brush strokes get back a little bit more and the surface gets a little bit more variegated. I don’t know. All works except that.
Small is so fast and simple and the brush is so big in comparison to what you are painting. It just seems to come out in a different form. And certainly, how elusive are all over.
At the moment I’m having a little trouble. (This is confession on tape.) These sunset nudes are getting hader and harder for me to come up with. I was so cocky about them. I thought I really had them under control. Now I work all day Sunday trying to get two or three… I did this act last Sunday for example… Finally I got it. For this one I’m working on several weeks now. And the one I did on Monday… I didn’t get it. It was awful.
They are very hard for me at the moment. Right now, I find painting difficult.

Q: Interesting. It’s seems the opposite way. When somebody looks at your paintings, he/she gets the opposite impression.

A: That’s the way it should be. But I don’t like when it comes that hard. I like to struggle a little bit, but not so much struggle as that. The thing is I don’t like repeating myself very much so I’m always trying to find a way to move a little bit different, into it or around it so… I’m stuck to that also right now.

Q: Maybe therefore you said you were chocked with nudes. Maybe at the moment?

A: I say that all the time. I say that all the time because that’s what I’m known for. I heard that so many times. Oh, yeah, all he does are nudes. Yeah, he does nudes. I’d like to break away from that. I envy guys like Hockney. I would like to be like Hockney. He does Hockney paintings.

Q: There’s nothing wrong with that.

A: I would prefer to be in that position. Instead of peoople thinking of me as a maker of nudes they would think of me as a maker of paintings. I’m labeled with the subject matter. I can’t get away from that subject matter. And here I am doing nudes all over again, which makes the matter even worse. For years I was an abstract painter alone. That was all I did. From 1993 to 1998. Five or six years. That was all I did.

Q: Yes, but at the same time you did all these cuts which are amazing…

A: Now I do what I did. I’m doing abtracts. I begin to miss something else while doing the abstract. And I’m determined to do both of them. And do the nudes and the abstracts.

Q: I see. But do you think it abstract more like compositions, which are in fact half sculptures, half paintings? Because you wanted to come out in three-dimensional?

A: I’ve always been three dimensional, from the begining. Sometimes very little. My first little pieces in the 60’s, several of them were three dimensional. So I’ve always done it.

Q: Already in the 60’s?

A: Yeah. I’ve always been three dimensional. I’ve done 3D metal works. None of them is around right now but big whole size 3D metal cuts. Not laser cuts. Almost like that breastplate over there. So now I’m doing 3D abstracts, which I tried once or twice in oil flat and they never worked. They didn’t work at all. And I was doing flat canvas and I’m starting to get three-dimensional. I think that’s one way to help me find my way out of my current dilemma to change the form. We’ll see where it takes me. So I have a new three-dimensional nude in the works now. With a frame around it. It’s like a breast down there with a frame around it. It has a frame around it. I’ll see how… I’m not planning another until I see how that one works out.

Conversation with Tom Wesselmann was videotaped during one week of our visits in his studio, becoming nearly a part of his everyday working routine. Looking at his works, talking about his art and trying to select the material for his presentation in our gallery we also decided that it would be much more interesting to invite the artist to speak about his work, than to publish in our catalogue a preface, written by an art critic. Mr. Wesselmann didn’t like very much to be taped on video, so we thought this interview would be only a sound documentation of our conversation, but after some minutes the atmospfere was very relaxed and so we have made a real focused video taped interview. At the end of our visit we parted with his vague promise that he might come to Ljubljana, when the exibition would be ready…
At that occasion we have met him the last time. He died because of complications after a surgical operation on December 2004.

Conversation was held at Tom Wesselmann’s studio, Cooper Street, N.Y., recorded with video camera, March 2004.