The 1960’s were a period of formal exploration for Wesselmann, as he began narrowing the focus of his paintings to simplified, iconic figures. Speaking about that time in his career, Wesselmann notes, “I was also looking at Matisse, but he had done all those exaggerations of the figure in his compositional inventions, and I decided to play it as straight as I could, with no tricks. Somehow in the course of adopting a more straightforward, honest – or whatever – approach, I still had to make something important happen. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that, but I decided to make the imagery as intense as possible, probably because of my early involvement with Abstract Expressionism, with its intense and aggressive imagery.” (Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, p. 18) Wesselmann achieved this intensity in his paintings by drastically simplifying the figures within them. Although his pop culture and commercial images recall other Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Wesselmann’s abstraction of those images was unique. The simple forms, saturated colors, and striking two-dimensionality of his Great American Nude Series, for example, render the female body utterly alien. Starting in 1965, Wesselmann took this reduction even further with his Mouth series, which depicted only the sensual, open lips of an anonymous woman.
The paintings in Wesselmann’s Smoker series, born from the earlier Mouths, are among the most striking and provocative images in his oeuvre. The open mouths, dangling cigarettes, and full lips are undeniably sensual, yet this eroticism is a mere byproduct of Wesselmann’s interest in the formal qualities of the image. The artist noted, “I didn’t start the mouth paintings to be erotic. I started them to be just a mouth, that’s all.” (Tom Wesselmann as quoted in Oral History interview with Tom Wesselmann, January 3 - February 8, 1984, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) By isolating the mouths from the rest of the female body, Wesselmann simultaneously objectifies and abstracts a familiar form. The open mouth, which seems to have been speaking or laughing only a moment before, is incredibly intimate, but the woman is completely anonymous. In fact, the first Smoker painting was born when Wesselmann’s model lit a cigarette mid-way through a sketching session; the artist was struck by the compositional perfection of her mouth, partially concealed by hand, cigarette and smoke.
Small Smoker #3 exemplifies Wesselmann’s ability to create an iconic image by simplifying and abstracting a familiar form. Unlike many of the other Smoker paintings, Small Smoker #3 is rendered in a dramatic black and white. The reduced palette draws an even greater attention to the image itself, accentuating the clear curve of the plump bottom lip, the soft lines of the smoke, and the sharply defined rigidity of the dangling cigarette. The velvety black of the open mouth springs forward from the blank wall behind it, while the pristine white of teeth seems even whiter next to the luscious, dark lips. The forms are so clear, so dramatic, that it seems like the ashy end of the cigarette could drop, at any moment, upon the viewer’s shoes. Small Smoker #3 is an exceptional example of the artist’s celebrated Smoker series, in terms of clarity, size, color and form. There is no doubt that in this work, Tom Wesselmann has combined the visual power of Pop and the intensity of Abstract Expressionism to create an incredibly sensual, stunning, and unique work of art.
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