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Market Widens for the Art of Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) initially gained attention in the early 1960s for his “Great American Nude” and “Bedroom” paintings that placed him in the Pop art canon. However, the artist sought to expand his scope to include Expressionist painting, total abstraction and sculpture (painted metal cutouts).

NEW YORK—Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) initially gained attention in the early 1960s for his “Great American Nude” and “Bedroom” paintings that placed him in the Pop art canon. However, the artist sought to expand his scope to include Expressionist painting, total abstraction and sculpture (painted metal cutouts).

The early pieces won strong praise, and the closer his later pieces hewed to that early formula, the higher the prices climbed, reports dealer Ivan Karp of Manhattan’s OK Harris Gallery.

Works from the 1960s are “the hardest to find and the most expensive,” says David Janis, a Manhattan art dealer and grandson of Sidney Janis, whose gallery represented Wesselmann exclusively from 1966 to 1999, when it closed. (At present no single gallery has exclusive representation of the artist’s estate.)

Prices for these pieces range from $800,000/2 million. Some of the artist’s earlier paintings are now found in museum collections—including those of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City—and in the growing list of books and catalogues featuring works of 1960s Pop art.

After the ’60s there was a general decline in prices for the artist’s paintings. “His 1970s work is more expensive than that of the ’80s,” Janis told ARTnewsletter, citing prices of $350,000/500,000 for ’70s work and $200,000/350,000 for ’80s pieces, noting that the abstract paintings Wesselman created in the ’90s are priced today at $100,000/150,000. “There are different levels of desirability,” he points out.

The artist’s widow, Claire Wesselmann, who is the executor of his estate, says the abstract work is “handled mostly in Europe,” through galleries in France, Germany and Switzerland, because “Europe took to this work more than collectors in the U.S.”

The estate itself contains “lots of work,” says Claire Wesselmann, who declines to be more specific, noting that the estate has not yet been inventoried or appraised. After the Janis gallery closed, Wesselmann and his studio became the principal agents for the artist’s paintings and sculpture, working with a variety of dealers for shows.

The sculptural works—painted steel figures (generally female nudes)—are priced from $125,000/250,000 for large (6-by-7-foot) individual pieces, and $6,000/10,000 for smaller (30-inch-high) figures that were produced in editions of 25. The artist also produced studies for major works and drawings (in ink, colored pencil and paint on paper) that generally range in price from $25,000/75,000, depending upon size and when they were created. Janis notes that he has for sale a 14-by-17-inch study, in acrylic and collage on paper, for Great American Nude #57—the large-scale painting that is presently in the collection of the Whitney Museum—priced at $150,000.

After an involvement with abstract painting in the early 1990s, Wesselmann returned later in the decade to the nude-women figures, adding different backgrounds and more Expressionistic brush handling. “Older collectors were happy with new nudes, and new collectors were happy to buy a work by a major artist,” Janis says. Those signature nudes, he adds, are “more accessible and juicier.”

Janis’s father, art dealer Carroll Janis, sold four of 10 Wesselman works that he brought to the Feb. 24-28 Art Show of the Art Dealers Association of America, all for prices in the $200,000 range.

At auction, collectors of Wesselmann’s artworks seek out his early- to mid-1960s pictures and spend the most for them. The highest public sale price to date is $944,500, for the 1963 acrylic-on-board Great American Nude #44, which exceeded Christie’s $600,000/800,000 estimate in 2002.

Other top prices include $798,000 (estimate: $600,000/800,000), for the 1963 acrylic Still Life #28, at Christie’s in 2001; and $791,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000), for the 1965 Great American Nude #79, at Christie’s last November.

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