With their sinuous pink flesh suffused with uninhibited pleasure, Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nudes are among the most exuberant and erotically charged images of Pop. The celebrated series, which Wesselmann commenced in 1961, heralded in many ways Pop Art's audacious new direction, which would forever change the shape of the international art world. Among his earliest forays into this new terrain, the large-scale pastel Study for Great American Nude #20 brilliantly captures the emergent excitement of the Pop movement.
Wesselmann's voluptuous reclining nudes put a new spin on Matisse's odalisques, suddenly reincarnated as all-American pin-ups, comfortably ensconced in middle-class settings. Wesselmann surrounds his nudes with a collage of contrasting patterns and colors, paying homage to Matisse as well as other masters such as Van Gogh, whose vase of sunflowers from 1888 makes a guest appearance. Wesselmann was an avid museumgoer, but as befits a Pop artist he drew on mass reproductions found in inexpensive art books or advertising for the immediate source for such quotes, which in other works were sometimes simply cut and pasted in collage form. As is characteristic of his early works in the series, he plays up the patriotism of his nudes by adorning their boudoir with red, white and blue, amusingly scattering tributes to the stars and stripes across the bed, walls and curtain that frame the glorified nude.
As Wesselmann has described, he was originally motivated to create the Great American Nudes because he desired an alternative to the virile masters of Abstract Expressionism, while also equaling their expressive force. As a student at the Cooper Union in the late 1950s, he worshipped at the altar of de Kooning and Kline, but felt that they had already brought their form of painting to a peak, leaving no room for a young artist to make a new mark upon their creative terrain. While turning away from abstraction and toward the body and still life as his muses, he strove to create dynamic and colorful painting that would rival the heat and primal force of Abstract Expressionism. The contour of the fleshy nude in the present work, who looks like she is outlined in red lipstick, is laden with a vigorous gesturalism typical of Wesselmann's work at the time.
Another source of inspiration for depicting the nude came from Wesselmann's personal life, as he has explained. These works passionately expressed the happiness he experienced following a painful divorce. He developed a relationship with Claire Selley, a fellow art student who would become his wife. Claire served as a model for many of the early Great American Nudes, his lover's impromptu poses providing as much inspiration for Wesselmann as the models of Matisse. Wesselmann chose to elide his model's facial features, however, wanting to represent an archetype rather than a portrait. Wesselmann was also inspired by Henry Miller's steamy and controversial autobiographical novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, which he channeled into the unabashed sexuality of his Great American Nudes. His nudes were particularly daring at the time, since during the early 1960s nudity was still rare in the American media.
His signature series' ambitious title has a humorous sensibility that would soon become one of the hallmarks of Pop Art, a quality that Wesselmann shared with friends such as Warhol and Lichtenstein. The title Great American Nude has a parodic levity that harked back to Wesselmann's roots as a gag cartoonist. He broke through with this series. In 1961, the year that he created the present work, he met influential curator Henry Geldzahler while they were both in one of Claes Oldenberg's happenings. After Geldzahler saw his works, he recommended Wesselmann to Alex Katz, who gave him his first solo show at Tanager Gallery on 10th Street in New York. This exhibition, which featured his Great American Nudes, was one of the first ripples in what would soon become the tidal wave of Pop.
The present work exemplifies the loose and energetic style of Wesselmann's drawings of the early 1960s. Drawing meant much to Wesselmann throughout his career, as his daughter recalled, "he had a grace with the lines and an ease in his manner that was enthralling to watch. He often bemoaned the incomparable nature of Matisse's drawings wondering how he himself could ever truly draw when Matisse had already done it with such fluid and powerful lines. He wanted to somehow get around Matisse but still realize the same kind of intensity and beauty in his own drawings" (K. Wesselmann, Tom Wesselmann, Works on Paper: Retrospective, New York, 2005).
Study for Great American Nude #20 has the scale and presence of one of his large-scale paintings, and is a fully realized work in its own right. The work is one of the largest and certainly the most ambitious works on paper ever created by the artist. As his daughter also noted, "He dedicated himself to creating numerous studies, and the tremendous excitement he found in them fueled future exploration. Studies were crucial to his process. Not only did they interest him in and of themselves, but they were a way for him to address problems before he got to the paint and the canvas" (Ibid.). This work's reclining Pop goddess would indeed repeatedly reincarnate herself throughout Wesselmann's career, reigning as both his signature subject and a star in the constellation of Pop.