In an attempt to fairly analyze an artist's market, the Art Market Guide rates the artist based on his or her esthetic high-water mark. However, in Tom Wesselmann's case, it is impossible to ignore the implications of his late work -- the "Cut-Outs" -- when it comes to determining his overall rating. If forced to consider his career as a whole, his late work is so weak that it would drag his rating down to a "Sell." If that were the case, it would negate the validity of his early achievement -- the great Pop paintings.
During the 1960s, Wesselmann was a Pop artist in good standing. He was represented by Sidney Janis, which at the time was considered prestigious. While his work wasn't as important as Warhol's or Lichtenstein's (or Oldenburg's or Rosenquist's, for that matter), it certainly was a cut above that of Mel Ramos and Robert Indiana.
Wesselmann deserves credit for being one of the few artists of that era to tackle traditional art history themes -- the nude and the still life. Wesselmann's series of "Great American Nudes" was the idealized version of the American male dream girl. His women were often blondes with large breasts who struck suggestive poses.
For this reason, Wesselmann's work has never been particularly popular with female collectors. In fact, there have been many instances of married couples electing not to buy the work because the wife didn't want to live with "sexist" imagery. Logically, this has hurt the potential number of applicants for the artist's work.
Wesselmann's early still life paintings also had a Pop sensibility, especially when he incorporated found objects and collaged them onto canvas. A typical still life might include a metal trade sign of a 7-Up bottle or a magazine cut-out of a piece of fruit. The still lifes are solid paintings but lack the visual bite of the Great American Nudes. Predictably, they also sell for less money.
This raises the question of what the potential market is for early Wesselmanns. The answer is hard to come by. On the one hand, his work represents a bona fide buying opportunity. As genuine works of Pop art become increasingly scarce, he's still one of the few bargains in the market place. For as little as $35,000 one can buy a small 1960s still life (measuring about 10 by 12 in.). For an additional $20,000 (at least), one can obtain a Great American Nude.
Wesselmann did a fair number of these small paintings, which served as studies for the major pictures but were also finished works in their own right.
There is also a third category of early paintings, the "Smokers." These works often portray a woman's red lips with a dangling cigarette and a plume of twisting smoke. The Smokers are probably a poor investment, given our country's growing anti-smoking sentiment. Still, they are attractive paintings.
The bottom line is that Wesselmann has never done particularly well at auction. Only once has he achieved a price in excess of $500,000. This is not a lot of money for an important work of Pop art. Vintage Wesselmanns are also scarce at auction. During the last season, only two serious Wesselmann still life paintings came up for sale.
At Sotheby's New York contemporary auction in November 2000, a large shaped-canvas, Still Life #58, brought $149,000. The estimate had been $100,000-$150,000. The other still life passed. Not a single significant Great American Nude has been on the auction block in two years.
However, the late work is a different story. In 1985, Wesselmann made a radical change in his work by creating colorful linear sketches cut out of sheets of aluminum and steel using a laser. When hung, the painted lines resemble a drawing and the cut-out areas invite the white of the walls to fill in the negative space.
In a nutshell, the works look commercial -- they feel soulless. Ironically, collectors responded eagerly to the Cut-Outs, which says more about the art market than it does about Tom Wesselmann. But once collectors tested the resale market at auction, they were in for a rude awakening. The Cut-Outs repeatedly bombed on the block and continue to do so to this day. To make matters worse, they often bring less than what collectors paid for them in their original gallery showing.
Unlike Philip Guston and Ed Ruscha, who both made dramatic but positive changes in their imagery, when Wesselmann rolled the dice they came up "snake eyes." The work and his reputation have yet to recover. In fact, he has become so desperate to recapture his past glory that he recently unveiled a series of all-blue Great American Nude Cut-Outs. Even though the work continues to sell to an unsophisticated audience, it does nothing to enhance Wesselmann's standing in the art world.
Make no mistake about it, Wesselmann still has a place in the art history books. What's sad is that he resembles a professional athlete who's trying to hold on for just one more season, even though he's well past his prime. Perhaps it would be best if Wesselmann retired with dignity or went back to painting canvases. The Cut-Outs are a gimmick, a one-liner. Once you know the punch line to a joke, how many more times can you bear to hear it?
Recommended reading: Wesselmann by Slim Stealingsworth (Abbeville Press).
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.