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Tom Wesselmann
SMOKER #21
Estimate
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Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
2,000,0003,000,000
LOT SOLD. 2,532,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT
28
Tom Wesselmann
SMOKER #21
Estimate
Irrevocable Bids
Lots with this symbol indicate that a party has provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee. If the irrevocable bid is not secured until after the printing of the auction catalogue, a pre-lot announcement will be made indicating that there is an irrevocable bid on the lot. If the irrevocable bidder is advising anyone with respect to the lot, Sotheby’s requires the irrevocable bidder to disclose his or her financial interest in the lot. If an agent is advising you or bidding on your behalf with respect to a lot identified as being subject to an irrevocable bid, you should request that the agent disclose whether or not he or she has a financial interest in the lot.
Guaranteed Property
Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
2,000,0003,000,000
LOT SOLD. 2,532,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

|
New York

Tom Wesselmann
1931 - 2004
SMOKER #21
signed and dated 75 on the overturn edge; titled, dated 1975 and variously inscribed on the stretcher 
oil on shaped canvas
74 1/2 by 67 1/2 in. 189.2 by 171.5 cm.
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Provenance

Estate of the Artist
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Private Collection, Japan (acquired from the above in 2006)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2012

Exhibited

New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Tom Wesselmann, April - May 1976, no. 9

Catalogue Note

Erotic and elusive, sensual and cerebral, Smoker #21 embodies the creative nexus of Tom Wesselmann’s artistic practice: the capacity to invoke, manipulate, and intensify a familiar image into an icon of American Pop art. In a hedonistic combination of hazy smoke and gleaming scarlet lips, the present work marks the apex of the artist’s Smoker series, the striking shaped canvases which portray the open, smoke-filled mouths of anonymous women. Executed in 1975, Smoker #21 is among the first breakthrough works in which Wesselmann began to execute his sculptural canvases in gradually larger proportions; this shift, alongside several other key developments in the artist’s conception and painterly execution of his magnificent Smokers, greatly intensified the visual dynamism of the already provocative paintings. In conjunction with Wesselmann’s radical shaped canvas, the monumental scale of the present work creates an aura of hyper-reality in which the alluring sensuality of the image achieves an unprecedented graphic intensity. Exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery in the year following its execution, Smoker #21 is an exemplar from the zenith of the artist's inimitable series of Smokers, and a compelling testament to Wesselmann’s unrivalled ability to isolate, fetishize, and reproduce the quintessence of sensuality in the Pop age.

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.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

|
New York