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

Little Great American Nude #27

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Little Great American Nude #27
signed, titled and dated 'LITTLE GREAT AMERICAN NUDE #27 Wesselmann 65' (on the reverse)
acrylic and gesso on Novaply
8 1/2 x 16 in. (21.5 x 40.6 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1965
John and Kimiko Powers, Carbondale, 1966
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005
New York, L & M Arts, Tom Wesselmann: The Sixties, February-April 2006, n.p., no. 24 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Honor Fraser, Tom Wesselmann, November-December 2008.

Lot Essay

Tom Wesselmann’s iconic Great American Nudes stand out as a seminal manifestation of Pop Art’s sensibilities and a fascinating meditation on the role of the nude in the history of Western Art. Little Great American Nude from 1967, with its vibrant pops of color and suggestive curves, exemplifies the artist’s towering role in the visual culture of the latter half of the 20th century. His treatment of the nude figure is one that recalls classical examples of the subject with a nod to masterworks by artists like Titian, Ingres or Matisse. It is a classic work reimagined in the visual lexicon of Wesselmann’s time. This, and other works from the Great American Nude series, recreate the odalisque for a distinctly post-war 20th century context. What sets Wesselmann apart from his peers was his ability to embrace subjects from the canon while finding a way to simultaneously look to the past and the future. While Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns gained notoriety for unorthodox appropriation of subjects like soup cans or the American flag, Wesselmann charted his own path, providing a unique spin on one of the oldest subjects in painting. This smooth, almost-abstracted composition depicts a nude woman reclining, with portions of her body isolated and cropped for a focused interpretation of her form. Its use of lines and color speaks to Wesselmann’s significant impact on the crucial period where Pop artists were rejecting the visual modes of Abstract Expressionism while building on the American identity associated with that movement. Acknowledging commercial imagery and technological innovation allowed Wesselmann and his contemporaries to manifest a new type of American art. Indeed, the title itself brings to mind that special kind of American ambition that is also associated with the paradigms of the Great American Novel or the American Dream. There is an idealized ambition to Wesselmann’s style, and a truly innovative mastery in his symbolic appropriation of the nude that created a new tradition of portrayal in American art at the time.

Carefully composed, Little Great American Nude functions as an anonymous rendering of the female form, stripped down in its simplicity, curves, and visual boundaries. The composition itself consists of very few elements: the smooth flat surface of the woman’s figure, a limited color palette that allows for a clearly delineated representation of her skin, hair, and smile, and an abstract series of curves and shapes that focus deliberately on her form without any distracting elements beyond its subject. The simplicity and scale of the work lend it a sense of intimacy, as if the woman portrayed is unabashedly presenting herself to the viewer in front of her. The absence of detailed facial features, with the exception of that broad gleeful smile, and the focus on the realism of her anatomy strip the subject down to the essential parts of a classical nude and imbue it with an electric sensuality. The subject of Little Great American Nude, like many works from the series, which ran from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, was the artist’s wife, Claire Wesselmann. This association lends the work an added sense of familiarity and adoration that comes from the dialogue between artist and subject, in what is a distinctly modern, sensuous, and joyful work of art.

When Wesselmann was first embarking on his career as an artist, his commitment to challenging the norms of what already existed played a crucial part in his development of a signature style. While a student at the Cooper Union, Wesselmann’s admiration for the work of Willem de Kooning and his Abstract Expressionist peers was a major determining force in his artistic evolution. This admiration in fact led him to acknowledge that in order to develop a meaningful body of work, he had to move beyond the type of painting he felt de Kooning had perfected, and to define something new and truly original. As such, Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes can be seen as a natural evolution to de Kooning’s Woman series from the previous decade. In challenging notions of what a modern portrayal of an age-old subject could be, Wesselmann succeeded in playing a pioneering role in the evolution and potential of Pop Art and the new possibilities it brought to visual expression.

Wesselmann noted that his primary preoccupation in the Great American Nudes was with the presence of the figure itself. He consistently left out facial features and defining personal characteristics in favor of a focus on the body. Here, we see how this powerful effect provides his model with a universal anonymity. She appears to us as an idealized and attractive female form, with a relaxed pose, completely at ease in her nudity, with visible tan lines, and a wide joyful smile. This is not a figure that is submitting to the viewer, but instead appears to be relishing the attention and freedom her position allows. Claire, Wesselmann’s wife and model, was also an artist, and there is an added complicity to this dynamic, where the model as muse is also a partner and co-conspirator in the artist’s life and practice. This modern personal touch to Wesselmann’s approach is one that has frequently been discussed in interviews with both him and his wife. He notably said of their collaboration that “it was terribly important to me that it was 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” (T. Wesselmann, quoted in, “Oral history interview with Tom Wesselmann,” Archives of American Art, January 3-February 8, 1984,, [accessed 2/13/2018]).

As a series, the Great American Nudes embodied a consistent commitment to representing the female form in repose while always maintaining that fine balance where she exudes a sense of proud and powerful display. Other works in this series experimented with variations in scale, medium, and even composition of different symbolic background elements. What sets Little Great American Nude apart from these incarnations is its focus on the purest essence of the subject. As Wesselmann continued to develop new ways of representing this signature series, he continually refined and simplified the work. Stripping the representation of the nude down to its essential elements provides the viewer with the most direct way to appreciate the multi-dimensional contemplations that lie in this brilliantly executed composition. Its optimism and sensuality embody a pure manifestation of the liberation and progress of the 1960s with all of the allure of the freedom and excitement those provided. It is this sophistication both on an art historical level and a personal one, that have led the Great American Nudes to stand out as a major contribution to Pop Art.

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