Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)

Study for Great American Nude #84

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Study for Great American Nude #84
signed and dated 'Wesselmann 65' (lower right)
charcoal on paper
47¾ x 57½in. (121.3 x 146cm.)
Executed in 1965
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York.
Nanni Burchardi Collection, Kelkheim.
Galerie Sander, Darmstadt.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1993.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Tom Wesselmann, 1966, no. 30 (illustrated, unpaged).
Frankfurt, Frankfurter Kunstverein Steine, Kunst nach 45 aus Frankfurter Privatbesitz, 1983.

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Lot Essay

'[Wesselmann was] a surprisingly sophisticated draughtsman with a great gift for a long, expansive Matisse-inspired line' (C.W. Glenn, 'Wesselmann and Drawing,' Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., Rome, 2005, p. 237).

Distinguished by her seductive curves, the supine figure in Tom Wesselmann's Study for Great American Nude #84 belongs to one of the most iconic series in American Pop Art. This work is a large-scale study for Great American Nude #84, a monumental painted formed Plexiglas work that was exhibited at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris in 1967. The highly charged sexuality of the female figure's full lips and exposed breasts capture not only the newly emerging social freedoms of Post-War America, but also the seismic shift that was taking place in the art world as it broke free from the vestiges of Abstract Expressionism to embrace the audacity of Pop. This monumental drawing is exquisitely rendered in charcoal with Wesselmann using an extensive range of different applications to depict the rich array of objects and textures, from the soft, undulating contours of the model's naked body to the dramatic waves and clouds captured in the background of the figure. Wesselmann's drawings are an important part of his oeuvre and are considered to be of paramount importance to the emergence of his distinctive style.

Reclining resplendently, her body tilted slightly forward, the figure in Wesselmann's composition seems to delight in flagrantly flaunting her femininity. Lying on what appears to be a pristine beach, with the ripples of the ocean waves individually marked out by the hard edge of the artist's charcoal stick, the precise rendering of each of the elements demonstrates Wesselmann's remarkable prowess as a draughtsman. Wesselmann's drawing practice is on display throughout this work as he moves from an almost 'laissez-faire' execution of the figure to investing an intense amount of attention on rendering her lips and breast. The striking difference between the soft shading of her face and shoulders and the concentrated working of the lips and nipples adds an almost abstract nature to the work, with the individual nature of the parts only coalescing together within the context of the figure as whole. This has the effect of making the work even more provocative than it would appear at first glance, and displaying to an attentive audience just how important drawing was to the artist's oeuvre as a whole.

Wesselmann began drawing while he was stationed in rural northeastern Kansas during his time as a young man in the army. He found his time as a draftee to be 'grim and boring' (C.W. Glenn, 'Wesselmann and Drawing,' Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., Rome, 2005, p. 245) and used to pass the time by teaching himself to draw. Initially interested in pursuing a career as a cartoonist, his pared down style soon began to lead him in other directions and in the late 1950s, during his senior year at the Cooper Union art school in New York, he finally gave up the idea of becoming a cartoonist to pursue the idea of becoming a painter. But despite new conversion to oils, he never lost his love of and appreciation for the aesthetic purity of drawing. His early nude drawings were inspired by a woman named Claire Selley (whom he later married in 1963), and another friend known as Judy, and during the early part of his career in the early 1960s he would spend many hours sketching them as a way of improving his draftsmanship. The intensity of the relationship that he developed with drawing evolved into a life-long practice of drawing from models and Wesselmann would spend hours producing precise preparatory drawings for all of his major paintings.

Large-scale works, such as Study for Great American Nude #84, are both bold and graphically expressive. These drawings provide us with a remarkable insight into one of the most prodigious talents of the Pop era. While contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein sought to celebrate the ubiquitous nature of the image, Wesselmann remained tied to reveling in the creativity and skill of the artists themselves, whilst at the same remaining resolutely contemporary. Works such as Study for Great American Nude #84 are crisply delineated, and used to structure the composition in formal terms as well as narrative terms. Discreet status symbols that only a few are privy to, these bikini lines announce the no small amount of effort that the American woman has put into her leisured lifestyle. Wesselmann's charcoal drawings for the series, with their areas of charcoal covering large swaths of paper not unlike Renaissance cartoons, give an excellent view into the artist's adventures with composition. Unlike the boldly coloured works in the series, in black and white the effect is cinematic, a nostalgic American summertime fantasy.

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