Tom Wesselmann (b. 1931)
Tom Wesselmann (b. 1931)

Great American Nude No. 44

Tom Wesselmann (b. 1931)
Great American Nude No. 44
acrylic and paper collage on board with radiator, telephone, coat and door
81 1/8 x 105½ in. (206 x 268 cm.)
Executed in 1963.
Green Gallery, New York
Robert C. Scull and Ethel Scull, New York
His sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet, 18 October 1973, lot 47
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
A. R. Solomon, "The New Art," Art International, 7, 1963, p. 41, (illustrated).
J. Russell and S. Gablik, Pop Art Redefined, London and New york, 1969, pl. XV (illustrated in color).
E. Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art since 1945, London and New York, 1969, p. 129 (illustrated in color).
S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 33 (illustrated).
B. Kerber, Bestände Onnasch, Berlin, 1992, p. 65 (illustrated in color).
S. H. Madoff, ed., Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley and London, 1997, p. 352.
Washington, D.C., Gallery of Modern Art, Popular Image Exhibition, April-June 1963, p. 56 (illustrated)
New York, Pace Gallery, International Girlie Exhibition, January 1964
Stockholm, Moderna Museet and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Amerikansk Pop-Konst: Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, February-April 1964, p. 97 (illustrated)
Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum, Amerikansk Pop-Kunst, 1964, p. 5 (illustrated)
New York, New School Art Center, The Urban Environment-Contemporary Visions, January-February 1966
London, Hayward Gallery, Pop Art Redefined, July-August 1969, no. 161 (illustrated)
Nationalgalerie Berlin, Aspekte der 60er Jahre, February-April 1978, p. 109 (illustrated)
Duisberg, Lehmbruck Museum, Das Bild der Frau in der Plastik des 20 Jahrhunderts, May-June 1986, p. 155
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Amerikanische Pop Art in der Hamburger Kunsthalle, February 1997
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona and Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves, Onnasch: Aspects of Contemporary Art, November 2001-June 2002, p. 109 (illustrated in color)

Lot Essay

Great American Nude No. 44 is a monumental microcosm, an intriguing life-sized yet surreal corner of Tom Wesselmann's world. Its fantastic scale and the inclusion of a real telephone, coat and door attack the viewer and all the standard preconceptions of art and artifice. In the year that it was created, Wesselmann had found a new, large studio more suited to the increasing scale of his works.

Great American Nude No. 44 is essentially a life-size depiction of a corner of a room containing a life-size representation of a woman. Only a short time after moving into the new studio, Wesselmann eschewed the billboard elements in his collages and instead began to include not only real-size, but real-life objects in his works. He had already begun this a year earlier, in Still Life No. 20, which depicted his girlfriend's sink and included a cupboard, light and the fixed backing to a basin. In Great American Nude No. 44 he took this even further--not only does a coat hang from the door, but more importantly the phone attached to the wall was designed by a scientist friend of Wesselmann's, Jerry Goodman, to ring six times every six minutes. This made Great American Nude No. 44 a multisensory experience. There is something uncanny about this completely recognizable domestic element to the picture. The location of something so homely as a ringing telephone in a work of art is extremely unsettling and blurs the boundary between the represented and the representation in a novel way. Great American Nude No. 44 is an example of trompe-l'oeil for the Twentieth Century.

Great American Nude No. 44 is designed to enter the world of the viewer--the radiator is at floor level, entering the exhibition space. Wesselmann's life-sized works are intended to stand at floor-level. However, the interaction between the depicted world and that of the viewer is limited not only by the two-dimensionality of the painted background, but by the attachment of the phone to the receiver--although some viewers apparently tried to answer the ringing phone, they found that they could not lift it. As Wesselmann himself said of such elements as the phone and heater in his work, 'In all of my dimensional work I use the third dimension to intensify the two-dimensional experience. It becomes part of a vivid two-dimensional image. The third dimension, while actually existing, is only an illusion in terms of the painting, which remains by intent in a painting and not a sculptural context' (Wesselmann, quoted in S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 37).

Although the phone is central to Great American Nude No. 44 both in terms of its position and the fact that it makes a noise, Wesselmann has still managed to make the grinning, stretching nude detract attention from it, as well as the lurid door and coat. There is a balance played out between the constituent parts that does not allow either door, coat or phone to dominate the work. Even the relatively crisp Renoir figure above the phone is facing the nude, unlike the piercing frontal portraits Wesselmann tends to include in his collages. The woman, modeled on his wife Claire whom he married in the year Great American Nude No. 44 was painted, is an almost uninterrupted field of raw and brash pink within the otherwise rather dark confines of the room.

The Renoir itself blurs the boundaries that Wesselmann sets out within Great American Nude No. 44. Not only is she active in bringing attention to the stretching woman, but she appears almost to be craning her ear towards the sound of the phone (in fact she is adjusting the rose in her hair). She thus appears able to interact with the world of the phone in a way that is not allowed to the viewer. Being a photographic reproduction, there is a clarity and focus about her that has more to do with our world than that of the nude. Wesselmann has chosen a picture which appears to interact with almost every aspect of Great American Nude No. 44 in order to emphasise the distance between his work and our world.

The enforced gap between the world of the stretching woman and the viewer exemplifies Wesselmann's complex relationship with Pop Art. Where other Pop Artists raised the everyday objects of consumer society to the status of art-objects in their own right, Wesselmann avoided this irony. The billboards and collage elements, the phone and the heater are not ironic statements but the flotsam and jetsam of our lives.

Although the consumer culture is central in some sense to his work (especially his still-lifes), he focuses more on the erotic. There are no commercial products visible in Great American Nude No. 44 although there are conspicuous elements of the banal. Instead, Wesselmann is focussing on desire and sex as the woman exalts in stretching herself. The lack of any features except her hair (both pubic and on her head), lips and nipples make her appear like a condensed pornographic model--only the attributes of glamour and desire are on display, while character has been noticeably removed. She is Woman, and desirable as such, and exuberantly available within the world of her room. However, like the phone that cannot be answered, she is part of an intangible two-dimensional world quite separate from our own.

Fig. 1 Pierre Bonnard, Nu debout, 1928, oil on canvas, private collection

Fig. 2 Henri Matisse, Large Reclining Nude, 1935, oil on canvas, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection


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