- Tom Wesselmann
- Smoker #5 (Mouth #19)
- signed and dated 69 on the top edge; signed, titled, dated 1969 and variously inscribed on the stretcher
- oil on shaped canvas
- 246 by 168 cm. 96 7/8 by 66 1/2 in.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in the mid 1970s
Corona del Mar, Jack Glenn Gallery, Tom Wesselmann, February - March 1971
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Both the Smoker series and its progenitor, the Mouth paintings, emerged from the artist's watershed works from 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 generalised, exhibiting little by way of identifying features 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 the main compositional elements, 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, which he began in 1965. The smallest yet most seductive part of Wesselmann’s nudes was therein isolated and magnified into monumental, shaped canvases. In 1967, the Smoker series was inaugurated when his friend and model, Peggy Sarno, paused for a break while Wesselmann was sketching her mouth. When she lit up a cigarette, Wesselmann incorporated it into the sketches that led ultimately to Mouth #11 (Collection of Dallas Museum of Fine Arts). Enamoured by this new effect, Wesselmann began the Smoker series in earnest.
Not seen in public since it was acquired by the present owners at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York in 1970, Smoker #5 (Mouth #19) represents one of the first developments of the Smoker series in its full complexity and graphic intensity. In 1967, Wesselmann began using 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, this allowed 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 Wesselmann, under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth, in a self-titled monograph, 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 a depiction of human activity into an immediately overwhelming and beautiful confrontation with an impossibly monumental phenomenon" (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 66).
In its focus on one part of the body, the element of fetishism, which was already latent in Wesselmann's earlier series Great American Nudes, became markedly pronounced. In this regard, Smoker #5 (Mouth #19) 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 Marilyn’s Lips from 1962. As well as being glamorised 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 Smoker #5 (Mouth #19), as with other works from the series, 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. 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). Commanding in its monumental scale and graphic ambition, Smoker #5 (Mouth #19) testifies to Wesselmann's remarkable artistic invention, placing Wesselman at the very forefront of the Pop art vanguard.