- Tom Wesselmann
- Smoker # 17
- titled and dated 1975 on the reverse
- oil on shaped canvas
- 96 x 131 in. 243.8 x 332.7 cm.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1980
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Tom Wesselmann, April - May 1976, cat. no. 6, illustrated
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Malerei und Photographie im Dialog, May - July 1977, cat no. 782, p.331, illustrated
Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Dada/Surrealist Heritage, May - June 1977, cat. no. 36, fig. no. 16, illustrated (upside down)
Paris, Grand Palais, Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, October 1979
La Jolla Museum of Art and The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Seven Decades of Twentieth Century Art from the Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Sidney Janis Gallery Collection, March - August 1980, illustrated
Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 205, illustrated in color
Santa Barbara Daily News, 20 April 1980, illustrated in color
H. Harvard Arnason, History of modern art: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, New York, 1986, 3rd ed., pl. 221, p. 464, illustrated in color
Tom Wesselmann's Smoker # 17 from 1975 is an outstanding example of the artist’s series of shaped canvases that focused on a female's monumental, disembodied mouth in the act of enjoying a cigarette. Both the Smoker series and its progenitor, the Mouth paintings, emerged from the artist's watershed series of the early 1960s, the Great American Nudes, Wesselmann's iconic contribution to the explosion of American Pop Art of the time. Posed seductively within interior and still life settings filled with products and symbols of American popular culture, Wesselmann's blonde, youthful nudes were generalized, exhibiting little by way of identifying feature other than mouths, nipples, hands and feet. By the mid-1960s, the artist focused more on the nude herself in close-up detail, with often her upper torso, hair and mouth as her remaining features, with little or no hint of the environment around her. With the series of the late 1960s, Wesselmann intensified his focus even further by concentrating in fetishistic detail on portions of the nudes – a monumental foot or a single breast in profile in the Seascape series and finally the red lips in the Mouth paintings. The smallest yet most seductive part of Wesselmann’s nudes is now isolated and magnified into monumental, shaped canvases begun in 1965. In 1967, the Smoker series was inaugurated when his friend, Peggy Sarno, paused for a break while Wesselmann was sketching her mouth. When she lit up a cigarette, Wesselmann encorporated it into the sketches and ultimately into Mouth #11 (Collection of Dallas Museum of Fine Arts). Enamored of this new effect, Wesselmann began the Smoker series.
Smoker #17, with its elegantly positioned hand cupping the mouth as it draws the cigarette from the open, exhaling lips, represents the penultimate development of the Smoker series in its full complexity and graphic intensity. In 1967, Wesselmann began the use of a projector to transfer his sketches onto canvas. Previously relying on the grid method of enlargement, Wesselmann was now able to manipulate the size of his studies with greater freedom and choice, allowing him to determine at which scale the image had greatest visual impact. The Smoker series presented another challenge to the artist who found it difficult to capture the elusive wisps of smoke by drawing from life, and thus began to take photographs from which he could more carefully render the smoke. Even more dramatically, as Slim Stealingworth noted about the series, "A major addition to his imagery occurred in 1973. Wesselmann had considered the Smoker series finished when he suddenly thought to include the hand. This greatly enhanced the complexity of the image and renewed his excitement. This excitement pushed him to increase the scale sharply. … This huge scale transformed the situation from depiction of a human activity into an immediately overwhelming and beautiful confrontation with an impossibly monumental phenomenon." (S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 66)
With the addition of the hand came added complexity and dynamism, as well as a heightened sexuality. The sultry smoke wafts through the fingers and off the glossy red lips reminiscent of a film still or advertisement. The long red manicured nails evoke the glamour and style of Hollywood where the cigarette was often viewed as a fashionable and seductive accessory - a convenient and unmistakable allusion to sex at a time when films were heavily censored. Smoker #17 is particularly erotic and suggestive with its open lips luxuriantly filled with an intake of smoke. Wesselmann exaggerates and magnifies this most sensuous detail of the female body, not unlike his contemporary, Andy Warhol, another Pop icon, who also chose the female mouth as a fetishistic object when he portrayed Marilyn Monroe’s disembodied lips for his great Marylin’s Lips from 1962. As well as being glamorized in Hollywood, cigarettes were at the forefront of advertising in the 1960s and 1970s, and Wesselmann drew on familiar imagery and techniques of art production within the graphic world of advertising. Yet, the Smoker series is far more painterly than the Great American Nudes, the Seascapes or the Bedroom Paintings of the 1960s. In works such as Smoker #17, Wesselmann’s tones and brushstrokes have a greater sense of realism and depth, while the use of oil allowed for finer renderings of nuance than acrylic on this large scale. No longer just line and color, the skin and fingers of the hand are rounded and more shaded than the generalized and flat skin tones of the nudes, creating greater depth in the overall composition, enhanced by the movement suggested by the rising smoke and exhaled breath. The sculptural quality of the shaped canvas also brought an added sense of realism and graphic power to the Smokers. Wesselmann was "consistently successful at achieving a maximum of visual intensity while also maintaining some semblance of realism." (Ibid., p.79) Although the scale of the mouth and its isolation are hyper-realistic, the position of the hand, the depiction of the skin and the organic wisps of smoke are as utterly convincing and beguiling as the ash at the end of the cigarette that suggestively teeters on the brink of dropping.