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Tom Wesselmann (USA 1931‑2004)

”Smoker Study”

To be sold at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale: Modern & Contemporary 9 – 12 November 2021

Lot 1 Tom Wesselmann (USA 1931‑2004). ”Smoker Study”. Signed and dated Wesselmann 72 and 1972 on the overlap. Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 31 cm.

Numbered 72‑4 on the overlap.
This work is registered in the archives of the Wesselmann Estate and Studio.


2.000.000 – 3.000.000 SEK
€ 199.000 – 299.000


Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, #14051.
An Important Private Swedish Collection, acquired from the above.

In context

Tom Wesselmann’s “Smoker Study”, 1972

”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” (Maxwell Davidson Gallery, New York, Works on Paper: Retrospective 1960-2004, exhibition catalogue, 2005).

In the mid-1960s Tom Wesselmann’s motifs moved towards an emphasis on the exploration of specific details of the female body. As a natural extension of the artist’s study of the female form in his legendary series the Great American Nudes, Wesselmann began working on his Mouth series where he shifted his focus to the erotically charged element of the female mouth. Tom Wesselmann explained this radical change: “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). Today one of his most famous and admired series, the idea to the Smoker series first came to mind in 1967 when Wesselmann was drawing mouth studies of his friend and model Peggy Sarno. When she paused to light a cigarette, the wafting smoke moving around her lips as she exhaled entranced Wesselmann who immediately wanted to capture the moment. Women who smoked were seen as unconventional and exotic in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and the motif often appeared in advertising. Madison Avenue advertising agencies even published images to encourage housewives to buy cigarettes, and beautiful models were often seen lighting a cigarette. Following the years of 1967, Wesselmann created a number of works depicting voluptuous red lips and swirling grey-white smoke. Today, his Smoker series is one of his most celebrated. 

Tom Wesselmann with screenwriter Danièle Thompson, circa 1967 © Sara Cedar Miller.
Tom Wesselmann with screenwriter Danièle Thompson, circa 1967 © Sara Cedar Miller.

The present work “Smoker Study”, executed in 1972, offers an alluring example of the Smoker series. Wesselmann’s oil studies provides intimate versions of his famous billboard canvases. In his drawings and oil studies, he would often merge and separate different elements to explore the motif from different angles and perspectives. In some of his paintings from the Smoker series, the mouth has been turned 90 degrees or is even seen upside down, exhaling the smoke towards only one side of the canvas. In the late 1960s, Wesselmann focused mainly on the mouth, often depicted closed with a cigarette balancing between the lips, but in the 1970s he began to experiment by opening the mouth to reveal the white row of teeth. During these years, he introduced the hand holding the cigarette and the elaborate smoke patterns, as seen in the present painting. The attention to details is of outmost importance in the smoker oeuvre of Tom Wesselmann, as he captures his models in a brief and highly intense moment. There is a subtle but obvious sensuality in Wesselmann’s pictures depicting smoking women – the red lips on a half-open mouth, the elegant hand holding a cigarette between her fingers and the red nail polish linking the elements together. The translucent spirals of smoke wandering its way between the fingers and around her lips exude the feeling of strength and intimacy, but the viewer is also left with questions about her true identity. In his own book, which he wrote under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth, the artist states: ”The mouth paintings, later to become the Smoker series, were begun in 1965, and Wesselmann finished the first ones early in 1966. The series represented a further evolution in the shaped canvas: a larger scale, closer views, and concentration on body parts. These first works were isolated mouths, with no environmental additions. The earlier ones were the same kinds of painted mouths as one might find in the nude paintings; only they are slight more detailed. The mouths were primarily in oil, and signalled the fact that Wesselmann’s work now and in the future would be in oil. In this medium, he felt most free to do whatever he needed to do technically, as oil handles in such a way as to make it better for large-scale details, especially those arrived at through extensive brushing.” Luminous and elegant in colour and form, Wesselmann’s depictions of smoking women illustrate the perfect balance between a classical style and modern American Pop Art. 

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