Tom Wesselmann (1934-2004)
Property of a Prominent American Collection
Tom Wesselmann (1934-2004)

Great American Nude #60

Tom Wesselmann (1934-2004)
Great American Nude #60
signed 'Wesselmann 65' (lower right); signed twice more, titled and dated 'GAN #60 Wesselmann 1965 T. Wesselmann' (on the stretcher)
Liquitex and graphite on canvas
47 x 50 in. (119.4 x 127 cm.)
Executed in 1965.
Mr. and Mrs. Sydney and Francis Lewis, Richmond, Virginia, acquired directly from the artist, 1965
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Belgrade, Museum of Modern Art; Cologne, Kolnischer Kunstverein; Baden-Baden; Staatliche Kunsthalle; Geneva, Musée d'Arte et d'Histoire; Brussels, Palais de Beaux-Arts; Vienna, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts; Milan, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, The New Vein: The Human Figure, 1963-1968, December 1968-February 1970, no. 49.
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, October 1985-July 1987 (on loan).
New York, Leila Heller Gallery, Look at Me: Portraiture from Manet to the Present, May-August 2014, p. 149 (illustrated).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

One of the towering and essential masters of the Pop Art movement, Tom Wesselman joyfully reimagines the classical odalisque in the mode of mid-20th Century American consumer culture. In Great American Nude #60 the artist presents a reclining female form set against a radically simplified backdrop constituted of sweeping curves, clean hard edges, and broad, flat blocks of color, his work expressing “a sensuous heat and close-up intimacy that were one part sex and four parts astutely considered color and scale” (R. Smith, “Tom Wesselmann, 73, Pop Artist Known for Sleek Nudes, Is Dead,” The New York Times, December 20, 2004). The work is an alluring example from Wesselmann’s iconic Great American series of nude studies, a series of work that Wesselmann developed during the approximately ten year period spanning the early 1960s through to the early 1970s. It was these works that set in motion Wesselmann’s career and established him as one of the founders of Pop Art. The phrase “Great American” became Wesselmann’s whimsical reference to the abundance and opportunities of American life, and evokes expressions such as “The Great American Novel,” “The American Dream,” “The American Experiment,” and the like. His use of the expression is pure Pop Art appropriation at its wittiest and most observant.

In Great American Nude #60 the artist continued to refine his signature nude studies, drawing inspiration both from high-culture art historical traditions and from the iconography of mass-culture, mid-20th Century consumer imagery. The deft handling of color and sinuous lines in Great American Nude #60 testify to Wesselmann’s consummate skill as colorist and draftsman. In other works Wesselmann had included the American flag, in whole or in part, as an essential element (indeed, the colors of the flag helped to inspire the series). Here, the flag reference is wryly hinted at in the form of the five-pointed star motif partially visible in the background behind the model’s head, the star shape a radically-abstracted form, in keeping with the powerful abstract composition overall that makes up the entire pictorial space that the figure occupies.

In contrast with many other works in this series, which included contextual elements that help to form and elaborate upon the background environment, in Great American Nude #60 Wesselmann chose a flattened-out pictorial space, reducing the background to a set of abstract curves and fields of color, rather than a more literal environment, the better to emphasize the figure itself, serving to accentuate the serpentine lines of the model. More closely cropped than some of the other paintings in the series, Wesselmann chose a format that creates the effect of forthrightly establishing a feeling of intimacy between the subject and the viewer. The bold color fields of the painting’s backdrop are carefully organized so as to define the essential contours of the body, the dark brown tonalities of the background delineating the curves of the arm, back, and breasts. The deliberately restricted range of tonalities serves to temptingly emphasize the subject’s lips. Wesselmann believed that facial features would distract the viewer from appreciating the overall composition, so he chose here to include only the full, red lips and gleaming white teeth, abstracting the face to portray a pure expression of delicious appeal, rather than a portrait as such. The effect was both to conjure and comment on the imagery of centerfolds, pin-ups, and movie starlets.

It is important to note, however, that the painting was a highly personal one for the artist; he chose his wife to be the subject and indeed she posed for Wesselmann throughout the Great American Nude series. The artist remarked, “it was terribly important to me that [the model for the series] was [Wesselmann’s wife] Claire and it was my great excitement personally about her, about sex, about being an adult, about being in New York City, about being an artist—about all these things. I was trying to put it into that one moment of doing. So she was the ‘Great American Nude’ model” (“Oral history interview with Tom Wesselmann,” Archives of American Art, January 3-February 8, 1984, In contrast with much Pop Art, which favored a cool, detached, ironic, stance, Great American Nude #60 exhibits a playful enthusiasm that engages the viewer directly.

Expressing the most overtly sensual subject matter of all of the Pop Artists, the current work displays the signature elements that distinguish it as a Wesselmann: a stylized rendering of the female form suggesting simultaneously a hot and a cool effect; the assertive, flat colors that Pop appropriated from the commercial art techniques of magazine advertisements and billboard displays; a composition formed of sensuous curving lines and expansive areas of solid color that demonstrate affinities with hard-edge, color field painters such as Ellsworth Kelly as much as with Pop figures such as Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. Although frankly erotic in subject, the painting projects a spirit of exuberance and a sense of fun, a light tone and a cheerful atmosphere. Great American Nude #60 reflects the buoyance and exhilaration of the era when it was created. The work evokes the libido-fueled, enticing allure of mass media images, the language of midcentury consumerism and the American Dream-world of Madison Avenue advertising. In Wesselmann’s work, “the heat and flatness of his color, the shallowness of his compositions, the suave paint handling and the presence or intimation of the female nude remained indelible signatures” (R. Smith, op. cit.).

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