Initiated in the late 1960s, Wesselmann’s Smoker paintings were a natural extension of the artist’s exploration of the female form in his earlier series. Indeed, both the Smokers and their predecessors, the Mouths, find their origin in the Great American Nudes, Wesselmann's iconic contribution to the explosion of American Pop art of the time. In these paintings, Wesselmann’s youthful nudes lounge seductively in lush, vibrant settings, their forms generalized and abstracted to render them utterly anonymous. By the mid-1960s, the artist had begun to focus increasingly upon discrete aspects of the female body, depicting a foot, single breast, or pair of lips in lurid, fetishistic detail. Reflecting upon the impetus for this shift, 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) Indeed, Wesselmann steadily simplified his Nude paintings over the course of the 1960s until, in 1965, he embarked upon the Mouth series; in these paintings, radically devoid of context or identifying features, the erotically charged physical attribute became the sole subject. The subsequent Smoker series was inaugurated when Wesselmann’s friend and model, Peggy Sarno, paused for a cigarette in the midst of a session. As he sketched, Wesselmann found himself drawn to the sensually swirling smoke, caught within and around his model’s voluptuous lips. When asked about the beginning of the series, Wesselmann reveals, “I did them because I was intrigued with smoke and coming in close on the mouth. I didn't start the mouth paintings to be erotic. I started them to be just a mouth, that's all.” (Tom Wesselmann, Oral History Interview with Tom Wesselmann, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, January 3 - February 8, 1984) Despite Wesselmann’s radically simplified magnification of a single, suggestive detail of the female body, the Smoker paintings invoke a wide variety of cultural references, ranging from the up-close glamor portraits of Hollywood starlets to the familiar imagery of cigarette advertisements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon diverse sources of meaning and messaging, the Smoker paintings achieve a universal significance that embodies Pop imagery at its very finest.
Commanding in its monumental scale and graphic ambition, Smoker #21 embodies the formal pinnacle of Wesselmann’s celebrated series of Smoker paintings. Unlike other examples from the series, the lush scarlet lips and painterly whorls of smoke in the present work are unencumbered by such accoutrements as a cigarette or hand, achieving a simplicity of form that borders on the sublime. The formal candor of the painting is counterbalanced by the astonishingly monumental scale of Wesselmann’s canvas; writing under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth, Wesselmann notes, "A major addition to his imagery occurred in 1973….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) The radical scale of Smoker #21 enhances its lurid quality, and Wesselmann’s breakthrough technique of a shaped-canvas format seems to take the smoking mouth out of the two-dimensional domain of painting and into a viscerally charged realm of verboten fantasy. In contrast with the saturated red of the plump lips, the languidly swirling smoke achieves the illusion of near transparency as it flows across the wall; the sumptuous tangibility of the smoke in Smoker #21 is due not only to Wesselmann’s superb painterly execution, but to the artist’s extensive study, in photo and in oil, of the movements of smoke. The perpendicular movement of the smoke, in relation to the parted lips, indicates that the figure is actually reclining, her recumbent head perhaps at rest upon a pillow. Another key breakthrough in the execution of the series, Wesselmann has indicated that beginning in 1974, his Smokers take on a reclined position: “The Smoker mouths became reclining smokers, the smoking woman is lying down and the smoke does different things than it would with an upright mouth. And the implication is more sexual—perhaps post-coital smoking.” (Ibid., p. 68) Despite these suggestive implications, the meaning of Smoker #21 is deliberately obfuscated by Wesselmann’s smoky aura—does the figure open her mouth, about to take another drag from the cigarette? Or is she speaking, laughing, engaged in an intimately whispered exchange? Unfurling in the mind of the viewer, Smoker #21 is simultaneously the universal evocation of an icon and the highly personalized embodiment of an innermost fantasy; as such, the present work triumphantly exemplifies Wesselmann's distinctive and profoundly influential contribution to American Pop Art.
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