After graduation Wesselmann became one of the founding members of the Judson Gallery, along with Marc Ratliff and Jim Dine, also from Cincinnati, who had just arrived in New York. He showed a number of small collages at a two-man exhibition, together with Marc Ratliff, at Judson Gallery. To earn a living he started to teach art. and sometimes math, at a public school in Brooklyn, and later in the early 1960s he taught at the High School of Art and Design.
Wesselmann first came to the attention of the art world with this series, Great American Nude, begun in 1961. He had a dream about the colors red, white and blue, or. more specificly, the phrase “red, white and blue.” When he awoke he decided to do a “Great American Nude”; limiting his palette to those colors and any related patriotic colors: gold fringe on a flag, khaki (the colors of his old army uniform), etc. (S. Stealingworth, 1980 p. 20j. He began to incorporate patriotic imagery: stars, stripes. American landscape photos, and historic portraiture. He also reworked the colors and images from a formal point of view, with a preference for representation, as in Great American Nude #8, 1961. This was the result of intense experimentation, which also included works that tended towards abstraction, like Great American Nude #12, 1961. He moved on to new materials: pages taken from magazines and discarded posters from the walls of subway stations. The larger collage elements called for a larger format than Wesselmann had used previously. Collage coexisted with painting -either oils or acrylics – and with enamels and drawings, as works began to approach a giant scale he approached advertisers directly to acquire billboards.
He met Alex Katz through Henry Geldzahler and Katz offered Wesselmann a show at the Tanager Gallery, where he had his first solo show later that year. The exhibition represented both the large and small Great American Nude collages.
In 1962 Richard Bellamy offered him a one-man exhibition at the Green Gallery. About the same time, Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery put him in touch with several collectors, and talked to him about Lichtenstein and Rosenquist’s works. which Wesselmann went to see, though without rioting any similarities with his own.
The Sidney Janis Gallery put on the important New Realists exhibition in November, which included works by Dine, Indiana, Lichtenstein. Oldenburg, Rosenthal, Segal, and Warhol, and Europeans such as Arman, Baj, Christo, Klein as well as Festa. Rotella, Tinguely, and Schifano. It came after the Nouveau Réalisme exhibition at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris, and marked the international debut of a highly significant group of artists who were soon to give rise to what came to be called Pop Art or Nouveau Réalisme.
Wesselmann took part, with some reservation. in the New Realist show (cf. S. Stealingworth, 1980, p. 31) where he exhibited two works from 1962: Still life #17 and Still life #22.
Also in 1962 Wesselmann started working on a new series of still lifes, continuing the use of collage but incorporating real objects: he picked up shelves, television sets, a refrigerator (for Still Life #20) wherever he happened to find them, and turned them into new assemblages. The plastic corncob in Still Life #24 was bought by Wesselmann from a corn seller for fifty dollars. Great American Nude #2 was shown in the travelling exhibition entitled Recent Painting USA: The Figure, put on by MoMA, which also arranged a study day devoted to Pop Art in the same year.
While not a cohesive movement, the idea of ‘Pop Art’ (a name coined by Lawrence Alloway) was gradually spreading among international critics and the public. As Henry Geldzahler observed: “About a year and a half ago I saw the works of Wesselmann…. Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios (it was more or less July 1961). They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination. In the space of a year and a half they put on exhibitions, created a movement and we are now here discussing the matter in a conference. This is instant history of art, a history of art that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself’ (H. Geldzahler, in Arts Magazine. 1963, p. 37).
Wesselmann never liked his inclusion in American Pop Art, pointing out how he made an aesthetic use of everyday objects and not a reference to them as consumer objects: “I dislike labels in general and ‘Pop’ in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used. There does seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention” (interview with G. Swenson, ARTnews, 1964, p. 44).
His experimentation with still life intensified: in Still Life #28 he included a television set that was turned on, “interested in the competitive demands that a TV, with moving images and giving off light and sound, can make on painted portions” (S. Stealingworth, 1980, p. 16.) He concentrated on the juxtapositions of different elements and depictions, which were at the time truly exciting for him: “Not just the differences between what they were, but the aura each had with it. They each had such a fulfilled reality: the reverberations seemed a way of making a picture more intense. A painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple wasn’t enough for me. They are both the same kind of thing. But if one is from a cigarette ad and the other a painted apple, they are two different realities and they trade on each other; lots of things – bright strong colors, the qualities of materials, images from art histories or advertising – trade on each other. This kind of relationship helps establish a momentum throughout the picture…, therefore throughout the picture all the elements compete with each other. At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if – that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild” (interview with G. Swenson, ARTnews, 1964, p. 44).
He took part in the touring exhibition New Directions in American Painting group exhibition with Still Life #25. In the show in Houston, Pop Goes the Easel, he exhibited Great American Nude #42, and in Boston Collects Modem Art, Great Amentan Nude #35 was exhibited. He married Claire Selley in November of 1963.
In 1964 he was at the Green Gallery with a new solo exhibition, and he took part in The Popular Image in London. Bathtub #3, 1963, was shown in New Directions in American Painting and Recent Acquisitions group exhibitions, both at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
Ben Birillo, an artist and Paul Bianchini’s business partner, contacted Wesselmann and other artists, including Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Watts, to put on The American Supermarket at the Bianchini Gallery in New York. This was the installation of a large supermarket where Pop works (Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, Watts’s colored wax eggs and so on) were shown among real food and neon signs.
He started working on landscapes: Landscape #2: Little Landscape #1, Landscape #1; the last of these three also has a soundtrack, the noise of a Volkswagen starting up. The first shaped canvas nudes appeared.
Wesselmann had his third solo exhibition at the Green Gallery. His works in these years: Great American Nude #53, Great American Nude #57, show an accentuated, more explicit, sensuality, as though celebrating the rediscovered sexual fulfilment of his new relationship (cf. M. Livingstone, 1996).
He took part in the New American Realism group exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum, and in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum.
In 1966 Wesselmann had his first solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, a relationship that endured until the gallery closed in 1999. He took part in the Art Market Part IV the Cincinnati Art Museum where he showed Still Life #44. He carried on working on his landscapes, but also made the Great American Nude #82, reworking the nude in a third dimension not defined by drawn lines but by medium: molded plexiglass modelled on the female figure, then painted.
His compositional focus also became more daring, as in the Great American Nude #78, narrowing down to isolate a single detail: as in Mouth #7 (with which in 1965 Wesselmann started his work on this subject) and later in that of a breast in his Seascapes the following year.
He took part in the Art in the Mirror and Contemporary American Still Life group exhibitions at MoMA.
He was included in the Dada 1916-1966 exhibition at the Galleria Nazionale Arte Moclerna in Rome. “When I came across this [Dadaism]… well, it had nothing to do with me… but when my work started developing, I sort of realized, not consciously but with surprise, that possibly it did indeed have something to do with my work” (interview with G. Swenson, ARTnews, 1964, p. 64).
Spending a lot of time in the country (on Cape Cod and upstate New York), he discovered a new dimension in his work. In contact with nature he made several small oil paintings that he turned into large-format works in his studio back in New York. He also started using an old projector to enlarge his studies up to sizes more suitable for the definitive version of the work.
The Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in Paris organized his first solo exhibition in Europe, while Dayton’s Gallery in Minneapolis and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln put on a retrospective of thirty-six works. These included Still Life #26, #36, #46. #49, of 1964; Great American Nude #51, of 1963, and Great American Nude #75 of 1965, and a series of views; Landscape #5, Seascape #4, #7, of 1965, which were constructed from the negative space around a breast_ This began of the Drop-Out series in which “the central image, a breast, was omitted from the shaped canvas while the nipple and areola were retained…The shape is the shape one sees, for example, while lying alongside a woman who is seated on the beach” (cf. S. Stealingworth, 1980, p. 52). The breast and torso frame one side of the image while the arm and the leg from the other two sides.
Next to Mouth #4, #5, #6 of 1966, two new subjects appeared: Bedroom Painting #1, and the series devoted to smoking: Smoker Study #11, #13, #31, #34.
The Smokers came from a cigarette lit up during a pause by Peggy Sarno, the friend and model whose mouth Wesselmann was painting. The pictorial recording of that gesture led to a series of works that were to become one of the most recurrent themes in the 1970s (S. Stealingworth, 1980, p. 52). He started working on shaped canvases and opted for increasingly large formats. Among the shaped works were Seascape #22, Still Life # 56 and Great American Nude #98.
A participant at the 9th Biennale in São Paulo, Brazil, the following year he was exhibited in Kassel for the fourth Documenta.