The incontrovertible sensuality of Bedroom Painting #37 combines the Pop spirit, Surrealism and eroticism of Tom Wesselmann's greatest pictures. This celebration of color, form and fun belongs to a series of paintings that focus on fragmentary glimpses of bedroom scenes. With these works, Wesselmann amalgamated elements of his seminal Great American Nude and Still Life paintings, concentrating on a few details of the figure such as the face, hands and feet, and surrounding them with commonplace interior objects to create forceful tensions between sharp-edged architectural features and the invitingly soft textures of flesh and flowers.
Although he veered away from still lifes in the mid 1960s, Wesselmann returned to this motif in 1967 via the Bedroom Paintings. The complex reverberations between body parts and still life imagery opened up new possibilites to Wesselmann. It became among his most enduring and important projects, providing him with a way to explore new methods of constructing pictures. His interest in scale and the spatial relationships between forms significantly motivated this change. In Bedroom Painting #37, the objects within the painting do not correlate to a realistic, recessive spatial sense. Instead, Wesselmann radically enlarged them, jarringly juxtaposing individual elements each asserting themselves in a compressed composition.
To create a more visually forceful and intimate encounter with his female subjects, Wesselmann paid increasing interest in scale in this series. "I'd gotten a little tired of doing full length nudes because everything else in the painting had to be so small," Wesselmann stated in 1984, "It wasn't exciting enough to my eye. Everything was little, too much like a Barney Tobey or something. I wanted to deal with these big shapes; so I came in closer and closer on the nude and kept coming in so close that finally I did the whole tit or the whole face or whatever. That was really when my work began to me, when I made that realization of what I'm excited by" (T. Wesselmann, quoted in I. Sandler, Oral history interview with Tom Wesselmann, 3 January-8 February 1984, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, on http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/wessel84.ht m)
Wesselmann's overriding concern for his painting's formal qualities stemmed from his formative interest in abstract artists like Willem de Kooning, whose "all-over" painting method presented a taut, shallow space where the viewer was aggressively confronted by mark-making. Although influenced by de Kooning initially, Wesselmann recognized that he needed to establish his own style rather than merely pursue a familiar, reverential path. Wesselmann developed his unique approach by returning to traditional studio practices, specifically the painting of nudes, interiors and still lifes, freeing himself from the influence of his Action Painter heroes whilst maintaining a confrontational power. To make his presence felt, he deliberately decided to do the opposite of everything he loved, exchanging the violent, messy expressionist style for crisply defined shapes that were emphatically figurative. His graphic flair and fluency in drawing, his devotion to the human figure, a dry sense of humor and his ease at communicating with the general public through his imagery all proved important factors in his erotically charged Pop Art.
Bedroom Painting #37 vividly exemplifies the Bedroom series and Wesselmann's mature style. Indeed indicating the importance of this period, two works that follow in the sequence of Bedroom paintings are now housed in public collections (Bedroom Painting #38 is at The Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum of Contemporary Art, Bedroom Painting #39 is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). Tightly composed and saturated with bold areas of color, the composition collapses the space it represents, urging the viewer to become both voyeur and participant in a candy colored moment of intimacy. In the mid 1970s, Wesselmann's rendered his models more representationally as he felt their enlarged scale meant they could absorb more descriptive information. Here, he paints his model in profile view, resulting in a more recognizable portrait, with a less anonymous feel than the Great American Nudes, where he treated figures as flat, flesh colored shapes that merely undergirded the pointed attention he gave their most sexually charged features.
Although the picture reveals nothing of the brazen sexuality of Wesselmann's nudes, it nevertheless leaves room for erotic associations, its imagery playing off advertising clichés whose expressive power derives from the calculated use of erotic symbols. Leaving any activity outside the painting's cropped perspective tantalizingly unattainable, Bedroom Painting #37 relies solely on the face to convey heightened sexuality. This heavily made up brunette is gratifyingly sensual, with her downcast eyes and her open mouth caught expressing ecstasy or lascivious anticipation. Wesselmann presents us with the idea rather than the reality of sex, the image's sensual appeal mainly residing in succulent colors and allusive symbols like the blooming flowers and the light switch turned to "ON." The series title only adds to the implied action, placing this modern odalisque in a locality we normally associate with sexual encounters.
Wesselmann's perfectionist imagery emulates the mass-produced photographs found in magazines and billboards, reveling in the banality of American fantasies about romance and sexual freedom. However, the artist's own sexual experiences primarily lie behind his almost Surreal representations of the female body and the ephemera of American life that surrounds them. Wesselmann admitted that it was reading Henry Miller's explicit and controversial novels, Tropic of Capricon and Tropic of Cancer around 1960, that compelled him to directly address his own sexual outlook in his art. This literary encounter also coincided with his first experience of psychoanalysis, which encouraged him to examine the erotic content of his dreams. Wesselmann's decision to celebrate his personal sexual fulfillment in his work, particularly in the Bedroom series, could have left him vulnerable at a time when contemporary art was refuting the Romantic notion that art provides an arena for the soul's outpourings. Yet, by presenting his muses as slick pinups with generic features, Wesselmann avoids reflecting on his own life, presenting visually bold and brightly colored images that appeal to the pleasure principle within all of us.