Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)

Great American Nude #34

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Great American Nude #34
signed and dated 'Wesselmann 62' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'G.A.N. #34 Wesselmann 8/62' (on the reverse)
enamel, spray enamel, liquitex acrylic polymer, fabric collage, printed paper collage, framed print and motorized parakeet cut-out on board
48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1962.
Green Gallery, New York
J. Daniel Weitzman, Watermill
His sale; Sotheby's, New York, 19 November 1981, lot 68
Private collection, United States
Stoffel Collection, Cologne
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 13 May 2003, lot 13
Acquavella Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 30 (illustrated in color).
J. Wilmerding, Tom Wesselmann, His Voice and Vision, New York, 2008, p. 60, (illustrated in color).
New York, Green Gallery, Tom Wesselmann: Collages Great American Nude & Still Life, November-December 1962 (illustrated on the exhibition poster).
New York, L & M Arts, Tom Wesselmann: The Sixties, February-April 2006, no. 5 (illustrated in color).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Great American Nude #34 is an iconic example of the unique space that Tom Wesselmann occupies in the history of American art. His deep knowledge of the artistic canon and its intersection with popular culture made him one of the founding members of Pop Art in the United States and in this work he combines a Matisse-like nude, still-life elements, 19th century portraiture and American patriotism into one imposing painting. This seemingly effortless juxtaposition of traditional modes with an avant-garde approach to composition, representation, and the everyday contributes to his unquestionable position as one of the individual talents of the 20th century. As the critic Lucy Lippard noted, “Wesselmann likes the reverberations between painted and collaged images, art history and advertising, trompe-l’oeil and reality’’ (L. Lippard, Pop Art, New York, 1967, p. 112).

The title “Great American Nude” was Wesselmann’s tongue-in-cheek reference to other generalized ideals of American society like “The Great American Novel” or “The American Dream.” This sly nod to some of the manufactured elements of outward-facing America fits seamlessly with his Pop Art contemporaries who probed the images of a society obsessed with reaching new heights of greatness. Centered around a voluptuous nude, the composition of Great American Nude #34 is rife with American paraphernalia including a flag, large blue and white stars, a framed picture of what one might assume is a past president, and a television set. There are also collaged elements like images of a telephone, a vase of flowers, and a bowl of fruit. All of the painted elements are rendered in bright, bold Pop colors with crisp outlines, and the appropriated imagery fits perfectly into the arrangement. Interestingly, the details of the titular nude are left to the imagination, her hair, lips, and nipples are rendered in a faint gray, and a few lines to denote the curvature of her breast and thigh have been added. Except for these additions, she has been reduced to a near-cutout of flat peach paint. This simplification of the female body to a stylized formal element divorces the figure from any individual, and instead takes on the generalized historical idea of the nude in Western art history. By emulating the hypersexualized poses found in magazines and advertisements and combining them with a nod to Matisse and the traditions of odalisques and Classical nudes, Wesselmann updated the idea of the artistic nude for the Pop era.

Although he originally wanted to be an illustrator, Wesselmann came to study under Willem de Kooning at the Cooper Union art school in the 1950s. Finding that his teacher’s gestural, painterly approach, which had so defined early Abstract Expressionism, did not suit his tastes, Wesselmann veered toward hard-edged representation. Recalling this shift, the artist noted, “de Kooning gave me content and motivation” (T. Wesselmann, quoted in G.R. Swenson, “What Is Pop Art? Part II”, from ArtNews, February 1964, reproduced in S.H. Madoff, ed., Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London, 1997, p. 114). Having such a strong presence to play off gave the young artist a strong push in the right direction. Reacting against de Kooning’s bombastic application of paint, Wesselmann concerned himself with a formalist approach to line and color. His subjects are often bereft of any identifying features, and are instead distilled into flesh-toned sexualized shapes. This depersonalization works to distance the viewer from the subject, but also serves as a unifying aspect among all of the Great American Nudes, creating a recognizable trope within
the artist’s visual vocabulary.

Like many of his larger compositions from the 1960s, Great American Nude #34 combines a boldly graphic painting style with almost Neo-Dadaist tendencies. Incorporating readymade objects like the oval-framed portrait, as well as the use of collage elements, ties Wesselmann’s painting to the forerunners of Pop Art such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. However, whereas those artists placed objects in their artworks in an abstract manner which separated them from their real-world context, Wesselmann uses the objects for themselves. A clock might be hung in a kitchen scene. A working television or ringing phone protrudes next to a reclining nude. Marco Livingstone noted that “everything in Wesselmann’s art is exactly what it is—no more, no less” (M. Livingstone, “Telling it like it is,” Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., 1996, p. 9). This interest in the everyday has a distinctly Pop sensibility, but also takes the objects at face value. They are included in the composition, but are only one part of the whole. The nude is the undoubted subject, and these common items serve to place her in our world.

The series from which Great American Nude #34 hails is, along with his Still Life series, one of the major hallmarks of Wesselmann’s oeuvre. Spanning the entirety of his career, these thematic trends were not chosen on a whim, but were instead a concerted effort by the artist to reinvent and reinvigorate the tropes of Western art. He remarked on this, saying, “When I made the decision in 1959 that I was not going to be an abstract painter, that I was going to be a representational painter, I had absolutely no enthusiasm about any particular subject or direction or anything. I was starting from absolute zero. And in choosing representational painting, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still lives, landscapes, interiors, portraits, etc. It didn’t take long before I began to follow my most active interests: nudes and still lives” (T. Wesselmann, quoted in M. Livingstone, ibid., p. 10). Whereas many Pop artists, like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, concerned themselves with drawing attention to commercial media and the images used in advertising and publication, Wesselmann pulled from a vast reservoir of traditional subject matter that he subsequently stylized, eroticized, and made his own. By playing with visual tropes that were already extant, the artist was able to question the history of representation and how it affected contemporary visual culture.

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