Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Property of a Private European Collector
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)

The Great American Nude #13

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
The Great American Nude #13
signed and dated 'Wesselmann 1961' (upper right); signed again, titled and dated again 'Tom Wesselmann XIII THE GREAT AMERICAN NUDE #13 1961' (on the reverse)
acrylic, wax crayon, graphite, printed paper and fabric collage on panel
48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1961.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Galerie Bischofberger, Zürich
Private collection, Zürich, 1979
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 23 (illustrated).

L’Aquila, Castello Cinquecentesco,  Aspetti dell’arte contemporanea: rassegna internazionale architettura, pittura, scultura, graffica 1944-1963, July-October 1963, p. 151. 

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

With its dramatic use of both paint and collaged pictorial elements, its reclining female nude set against a radically simplified backdrop, and its sly and ironic references to symbols of American patriotism, Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #13 reimagines the classical odalisque— paintings of the reclining female form that have been a recurring motif in Western art—updating it in the Pop Art style.

The present work is an early example from the artist’s iconic Great American Nude studies, a significant body of work that the pioneering innovator of Pop developed during the approximately ten year period spanning the early 1960s through the early 1970s. The phrase “Great American” became Wesselmann’s whimsical reference to the abundance and opportunities of life in the USA, and evokes expressions such as “The Great American Novel” and “The American Dream.” Wesselmann clearly took great pleasure in the fun and the irony he derived from his use of the phrase in the context of his Pop stylizations, as evident in the current work.

In Great American Nude #13, the bold color fields of the painting’s backdrop are carefully organized so as to define the essential contours of the body, the negative space of the background working to trace the curves of the arm, torso, legs, and breasts. Wesselmann places the figure in such a way that she occupies much of the pictorial space across the horizontal length of the canvas, a strategy that brings the figure intimately close to the viewer, creating the effect of forthrightly establishing a feeling of erotic acquaintance between the subject and the viewer.

Counter to the cool, detached, ironic stance that was the norm in much Pop Art, Great American Nude #13 exhibits a playful enthusiasm that engages the viewer directly. But, in an unsettling twist, the nude is also rendered as merely a drastically simplified silhouette, intentionally lacking distinguishing individual features that would link the figure with the viewer. Close yet out-of-reach, the image evokes the mingled excitement and frustration of mass media advertising’s tantalizing subjects dangled before our eyes.

Wesselmann’s painting presents a flattened-out, red, white and blue pictorial space, reducing the nude form resting within a set of abstract curves and fields of pattern and color, rather than a more literal environment, the better to emphasize the reclining form itself, serving to accentuate the serpentine lines of the nude. The bare body is quite literally nestled in a pattern of red, white and blue, while a faded portion of the Stars and Stripes and a photo of Lady Liberty occupy the work’s left-most corner—a great American nude, indeed.

Wesselmann abstracts the reclining form to convey an anonymous expression of delicious appeal, rather than an individual portrait. The effect both conjures and comments on the imagery of centerfolds, pin-ups, and movie starlets of the era in which the painting was created. It reflects the surface optimism and exhilaration of the era when it was created. Commenting on the libido-fueled and enticing allure of mass media imagery, the painting plays with the mingled languages of midcentury American consumerism and patriotism.

Wesselmann used a mixed-media collage aesthetic, which merged acrylic or oil-painted canvas or board surfaces with paper or other two-dimensional “real life” elements. The collaged cloth materials present patterned fields—an oriental rug motif in the lower left; a blue expanse with white dots in the lower right third of the composition—suggestive of Matisse’s organization of his paintings through use of flattened decorative shapes. In Wesselmann’s work, these patterns create a thrilling tension between their one-dimensional space and the illusion of depth and dimension elsewhere in the image.

Expressing the most overtly erotic subject matter of all of the Pop Artists, the present work displays the signature elements that distinguish it as a Wesselmann: a stylized rendering of the female form offering both a hot and a cool effect; the assertive, flat colors that Pop appropriated from the commercial art techniques of advertising; and a composition made up of sensuous curving lines and expansive areas of solid color that show 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.

Wesselmann was one of a select group of innovators who used techniques such as collage and assemblage to help create a vibrant new style of art to match the exuberant decade of the 1960s in which he came of age as an artist. Wesselmann’s work was included in the influential 1962 “New Realists” show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, one of the first gallery exhibitions of Pop Art and one that included some of the figures who, as did Wesselmann, brought a Pop sensibility to the still life genre—Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg. Both sexy and smart, the present work is a joy to look at and a wonderful example of the Pop Art style, by one of its greatest practitioners.

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