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

Great American Nude # 21

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Great American Nude # 21
signed and dated 'Wesselmann 61' (upper right); signed again twice, titled and dated 'wesselmann 61 #21' (on the reverse)
casein, enamel, graphite, printed paper, fabric, linoleum and embroidery on board
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1961.
Tanager Gallery, New York
Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1963
Private collection, by descent
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 11 November 2008, lot 19
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
T. Wesselmann, "Editor's Letters," ArtNews, Summer 1963, col. 62, no. 4, p. 6 (illustrated).
Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., Venice, 2003, p. 76 (illustrated in color in an unfinished state).
P. Moorhouse, Pop Art Portraits, New Haven, 2007, p. 177 (illustrated in color in an unfinished state).
J. Wilmerding, Tom Wesselmann: His Voice and Vision, New York, 2008, pp. 30-31 (illustrated in color in an unfinished state).
New York, Tanager Gallery, Group Show, 1962.
Katonah Gallery, American Painting 1900-1976: Abstract Expressionism and Later Movements, Part III B, July-September 1976, no. 93 (illustrated).

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Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

Tom Wesselmann's acclaimed series Great American Nudes epitomized the contemporary American Pop avant-garde, of which Great American Nude #21 is a particularly arresting example. Wesselmann's title embraces the era's fantastic public spirit, which spawned similar aspirational narratives in literature (The Great American Novel) and society at large (The American Dream). A consistent palette of radiant reds, whites and blues pervades his billboard-sized paintings, accented with patriotic yellows borrowed from Old Glory's tassels. We can see the American flag in Great American Nude #21 as a framed print centered against the bedroom's far wall, a summary tribute in miniature, carried through to the interior's wallpapered stars, and striped pillowcases. Wesselmann claimed to have vivid dreams of the primary colors before beginning work on the series, and indeed, their simple tone intensifies these images' totemic power. In later paintings, Wesselmann diminished the evidence of brushstrokes to enhance their graphic flatness, here achieved almost entirely with bold blocks of color.

Yet the impact of the Great American Nudes is more nuanced than its chromatic scheme - as Wesselmann described: "At first glance, my pictures seem well-behaved, as if - that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy gives and takes that I feel they get really very wild" (T. Wesselmann, quoted in G.R. Swenson, "What Is Pop Art? Part II", from Art News, February 1964, reproduced in S.H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London, 1997, pp. 112-17).

Disparate still life elements give texture to Wesselmann's ordinary backdrops - tomatoes, lime, vermouth, coca-cola, cans of Del-Monte fruit cocktail, Pall Mall cigarettes - individually loaded with inherent definitions the viewer can easily identify. However, their function within the heterogeneous assemblage of his very intimate domestic scenes grows complicated, producing a palpable tension with the less decipherable curves of Wesselmann's prone erotic figures. Wesselmann often represented these products of commercial mass consumption in realist style. The glistening fruit, bottle of vodka, newly-elected John F. Kennedy and trompe l'oeil exterior-facing window in Great American Nude #21 provide very public entry into the most private corners of the American home. They establish a relationship that describes consumer culture's sexual drive as much as it celebrates the empowered American libido, culturally taboo in 1961. After all, Wesselmann executed his everyday Great American Nudes at a time when Hugh Hefner packaged sex as a luxury product in the pages of Playboy.

In downtown New York City in the 1960s, Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein each independently began to incorporate vernacular imagery from newspapers, advertisements, direct-mail catalogues and discarded subway posters into their artworks in various ways. They brought to the surface Post-War American culture's shifting undertones, which would soon erupt into the 20th Century's most influential avant-garde: Pop. The Pop artists assembled and collaged, sourcing material from the booming American economy's "vulgar" and prolific commercial industries. They recalled the actions of European Dadaists and Constructivists earlier in the century, who had aimed to bring a wider set of concerns into focus, to merge the urgencies of art and life. American Pop joyfully engaged with the reproducible photographic image and other figurative symbols taken from the everyday - in contradistinction to the hermetic highbrow of their immediate predecessors, the Abstract Expressionists. The Pop artists redefined in the most basic sense the scope and expectations of even the most radical contemporary painting. Wesselmann himself studied with Willem de Kooning at Cooper Union in the 1950s, but grew convinced that a young man had limited prospects in the gestural terrain of overwrought action painting. Thus, Wesselmann defined himself against his formidable teacher, initially determined to pursue a career as a cartoonist: "de Kooning gave me content and motivation" (Ibid, p. 114).

In composition, Wesselmann's Great American Nudes are both studied and complex, consciously reflecting on the reclining female nude's art-historical lineage, from Titian to Manet to Matisse - the latter of which had the most influence on Wesselmann's own fluid, supple forms. Wesselmann used greater abstraction and less definition in these 1960s nudes than in later paintings dating from the 1980s. This resulted from an almost mythic revelation for Wesselmann which firmly situates Great American Nude #21 on the cusp of the countercultural movement - because the nudes, contrary to the collaged still-life elements, were rendered from the life. The model for the whole series was Wesselmann's new girlfriend (after the collapse of his first marriage) Claire Selley, who very literally embodied his own sexual awakening. Selley posed in Great American Nude #21 with the forthrightness of Matisse's Odalisques, presenting an archetypical figure of female confidence. Not at all coy, her posture readily commands desire. Wesselmann deliberately left the face blank to avoid the suggestion of a portrait, the punchy red outline of disembodied lips forming the figure's only defined feature. Thus, as deeply personal as the painting's content could have been, Wesselmann leaves the erotic potential open to subjective interpretation and, most significantly, the imagination.

The crimson lips of Great American Nude #21 recur throughout the series, and also anticipate another emblem: Warhol's serialized diptych of Marilyn Monroe's seductive pout from 1964. In this context the knowing gaze of the handsome young President - then bracing for the Cold War's climax in the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year, here peering out over the prostrate nude in the painting's middle ground - acquires still greater consequence retrospectively.
The Great American Nudes and Great American Nude #21 in particular express the imagery and charged emotion that characterized Post-War America, establishing Wesselmann as a master of color and collage, whose deft manipulation of art-historical and contemporary emblems heralded the robust reign of Pop.

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