Tom Wesselmann: Steel-Cut Editions
New York City, 18th September, 2003
Tom Wesselmann’s steel cut works exemplify two consistent and core elements of his practice, namely the fundamental role that drawing played throughout his career, combined with his constant desire to push the boundaries of what a chosen medium could offer. This Online Viewing Room presents a selected cross-section of the metal editions he made, produced using a technique which he pioneered over the latter part of his career.
For Wesselmann, creating art was never simply the act of applying paint to canvas; it was, in a holistic sense, a desire to make representational images but in a new and dynamic way, in his own words, “… to make figurative painting as exciting as I found abstraction to be”. Drawing on traditional art historical genres, he challenged what painting and sculpture could be – shaping canvases, adding three dimensional elements, incorporating assemblage and adding real everyday electrical items such as TVs and lights. In almost every example, his chosen subject matter would come to be executed across a range of different media, each pushing the iconography to new limits.
One of the best examples of this was the radio, which appears in numerous forms, in drawings, paintings, as a vacuum formed wall relief and as a working object itself to add sound to image. In editioned form, the radio appears in one of his earliest prints as a blind embossed image with its outline faintly traced in pencil, later again as a silkscreen and then finally as a coloured steel-cut edition, the latter fulfilling his desire to create a material, tangible still life drawing. Wesselmann went on to create a substantial body of work using the steel-cut technique, both in unique form and as editions. Alongside still lifes, he incorporated nudes, landscapes and self-portraits, some employing colours in Alkyd paint and others rendered in pure stainless steel. The majority of the works make use of the delicacy and dimensionality of the metal to echo the artist’s drawn line; others, such as the Tennanah Lake House, push the medium further with the steel cut lines placed onto and around a solid metal background which anchors the composition and gives a more solid, painterly feel to the finished object. Wesselmann echoed this sentiment in his journal in 1991, “…one observation I have had a few times recently that hasn’t been written about in my metal work (although almost nothing has been) this is an unusual example of the primacy of drawing in painting. The drawing doesn’t just support the painting, it is the painting.”
For the metal pieces, Wesselmann worked closely with the renowned metallurgy fabricator Alfred Lippincott and the artist’s diary at the time documented the development, successes and frustrations he experienced in realising these particular works. On August 27 1985, he wrote to Lippincott, “My original idea for the cut out steel works was an important one; to make drawings in steel, retaining all spontaneous lines etc. that tend to deny its being in steel, and affirming that it really is a drawing”. Over the next few years Wesselmann was both clearly excited about the possibilities of what could be achieved using steel cut lines, but also frustrated by the inability of the technology that existed at the time to match his ambitions. Over the course of the 1980s and the early 1990s, the computer technology associated with metal cutting became increasingly more sophisticated which allowed Wesselmann to create the nuanced drawn line and pictorial space he desired.
Wesselmann’s conviction about the inventive possibilities of the technique also led him to be protective of the technology he had so heavily invested in, and on numerous occasions he raised concerns with the fabricator that other artists would take his ideas as their own. In July 1986 he observed in a letter to Lippincott, “…now, the works can be done quicker and with more complexity & faithfulness to my drawing. Very exciting. I’m having the show with Karp to intimidate as many artists as possible, that this is my technique.” Ultimately though, no medium can truly be ‘claimed’ by any one artist and indeed many subsequent generations have taken the concept originally developed by Wesselmann and used it in their own work. What is true however, is that these metal ‘steel cut’ drawings are now seen as an intrinsic part of his oeuvre and as a medium most closely associated with his practice.
David Cleaton-Roberts, 2021
Cristea Roberts Gallery is the exclusive worldwide representative for the prints and metal cut-out editions from the Tom Wesselmann Estate.
Please view the works below and contact [email protected] if you would like to receive prices or require any further information.
When I began life as an artist, I was recently maritally separated and had few possessions and no money. I had a table, a chair, a bed and a radio. The radio as object was not important to me, but the music it provided (this was before cassettes) was vitally sustaining. It was an important addition to my life for at least twenty years, so it often found it’s way into my work. I more or less used the image of the radio I had for most of those years, a generally art nouveau type of slightly streamlined plastic. It was interesting as a still life element because of its balance between being a mechanical object with a certain complexity and rigid presence, and yet having the simplicity of a piece of fruit.
In the 60’s, I was interested at times in adding sound to some of my paintings, so I included a working radio within the assemblage context.
Tom Wesselmann for the College of New Rochelle, 30 May 1993.
About the artist
About the artist
Tom Wesselmann (1931 - 2004) was born in in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. He attended Hiram College in Ohio from 1949 to 1951 before entering the University of Cincinnati. In 1953 his studies were interrupted by a two-year enlistment in the army, during which time he began drawing cartoons. He returned to university in 1954 and received a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1956. After graduation he moved to New York, to study art at Cooper Union, receiving a diploma in 1959.