Contemporary Curated

Contemporary Curated

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 22. TOM WESSELMANN | SMOKER STUDY (FOR SMOKER #17).



Auction Closed

November 19, 12:29 PM GMT


160,000 - 200,000 GBP

Lot Details


Property from an Important European Collector


1931 - 2004


signed and dated 74 on the reverse

oil and graphite on canvas

30.5 by 38.2 cm. 12 by 15 in.

Sidney Janis Gallery, New York

Guy Pieters Gallery, Knokke

Acquired from the above by the present owner

'Although Wesselmann started drawing 'Smokers' in the late Sixties, it was in the Seventies that he executed... more complex 'Smokers'. Wesselmann found a sensuality in the juxtaposition of the smoke wafting out of the mouth. The allure of the movement of smoke from behind the bright red lips was for Wesselmann, pure sensuality.' Kate Wesselmann cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Maxwell Davidson Gallery, Works on Paper: Retrospective 1960 -2004, 2005, n.p

A haze of swirling grey smoke drifts languidly from voluptuous red lips, hovering tentatively, enfolding and partially concealing a disembodied hand that holds a burning cigarette. An outstanding oil study from Tom Wesselmann's celebrated Smoker series, the present work embodies the artist’s unrivalled ability to create a weighty and dense composition with a visual intensity that is at once elusive, sensual and alluring.

Executed in 1974, this work forms part of a pivotal group of paintings that can be considered a natural extension of Wesselmann's exploration of the female form in his iconic Great American Nudes series. In the mid-1960s the artist’s compositional focus became increasingly daring as he moved from seductively lounging nudes towards an emphasis on a specific element of the female body explored in fetishistic detail. Reflecting on the stimulus for this radical shift in his artistic practice, Wesselmann noted “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” (Tom Wesselmann cited in: Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1994, p. 18). Simplifying and reducing his nude paintings to their most erotically charged elements, the artist embarked upon his Mouth series, where with a Magritte-like sensibility, Wesselmann began to depict sharply defined and plump parted lips deprived of a body and devoid of any context. Born fortuitously out of this series in 1967, when his friend and model Peggy Sarno had paused to light a cigarette whilst the artist was drawing studies of her mouth, Wesselmann became entranced by the whirling movement of the smoke caught around her lips while she was exhaling. The Smoker series has since become one of the most important and recurrent themes in his oeuvre during the 1970s.

With clear, rhythmic curves and soft lines Wesselmann highlights a moment of intense focus, an act suspended in time: The half-open mouth, the sparkle of lipstick, the scarlet gleam of the nail varnish on the solitary hand holding the rigid cigarette, all caressed and obscured by soft, translucent spirals of smoke. Wesselmann introduced hands and elaborate smoke patterns to his series in the mid-seventies, merging and separating these individual elements to create a more intricate compositional structure and more complex designs. The present work embodies Wesselmann’s interest in the formal qualities of the image with an undeniable penchant for intimate sensuality. The present work offers an outstanding example of the Smoker series, the apex of the artist’s investigations into colour, clarity and form.

Wesselmann retained much of the brash colouring of his earlier work throughout his career, as well as the wit he accrued in his ambition to become a professional cartoonist. Firmly rooted in the visual landscape of the 1960s and 1970s, with its suggestive and eroticised smoking advertisements, Wesselmann’s work is rife with cunning cultural references that operate at the nexus of consumerism and desire. By painting disembodied mouths, Wesselmann appropriated the visual language of consumer culture that fragments, depersonalises and objectifies women to appeal to target demographics. Although inevitably grounded in contemporary popular culture and mass consumption, Wesselmann always considered his artistic development to be inherently independent and repeatedly disavowed the Pop Art label, instead striving to create “intimate subject matter to elevate figurative art to the excitement of abstract art” (Tom Wesselmann, Artist’s unpublished personal journal, 1985). Regardless of labels, however, this study triumphantly exemplifies Wesselmann's remarkable contribution to art history.