Tom Wesselmann modernised the classic female nude into a sleek, pinup girl that represents sex, power, and beauty. Flirting with the viewer, his imagery emulated the mass-produced photographs found in magazines and billboards. A pre-eminent figure in the Pop art movement, he was part of the larger group of artists including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, James Rosenquist, and Jim Dine that provided American art with a new sense of itself as it reacted against the formerly dominant Abstract Expressionist style. Although, influenced by Willem de Kooning initially, Wesselmann recognized that the rough, aggressive, and raw elements of this style were not aligned with his intentions and he began doing everything in opposition. Wesselmann exchanged the messy expressionist style for a neat and controlled one. Carol Nude, 1977, with its pristine and remarkable clarity, represents the apogee of this achievement.
Not only technically outstanding, Carol Nude also benefits from extraordinary provenance. The New York and Colorado based collectors, John and Kimiko Powers bought this painting directly from the artist's 1979 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Over time they assembled one of the finest and most comprehensive Pop art collections in the United States, acquiring signature pieces by the movement's stars including Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Larry Rivers, Mel Ramos, Claes Oldenberg, and Jim Dine. Some of the most fjted collectors of their time, the Powers' Collection has been time and again celebrated in monumental institutional exhibitions. John and Kimiko were collectors of the ideological sort, avoiding publicity, not interested in using their collection to build an "image." Instead, they transformed collecting into an art of their own. Their zeal for collecting was contagious and they shared their passion with friends and acquaintances. Beginning their collection in the 1960s, they frequented the galleries regularly and became very good friends with many of the artists including Wesselmann. John played the saxophone and that is how he came to know Wesselmann, as he was also a composer of music. Kimiko in an interview with Bob Monk says, 'They shared this combination of interests. And John loved Tom's images. He always said that Tom was one of the great artists and that he should be appreciated far more than he is today' (Pop Art, The John and Kimiko Powers Collection, Gagosian Gallery, New York)
Wesselmann's nudes are his most iconic subjects. He was inspired to create this first series of nudes called the Great American Nude in 1959. These depictions of voluptuous female nudes are Pop collages and incorporated elements of still-life that tended toward consumer products. Upon completion of this series in 1968, he began a hiatus from the figure. It was not until 1976 that his interest returned to focus on figurative painting.
Carol Nude, 1977, lounges seductively, as she exposes her languorous body, with her arms overhead. She peers out from the picture plane with a playful come-hither smile, making direct eye contact with the viewer. Carol Nude is aligned with the greatest nudes in art's trajectory. Her reclining position makes references to the odalisques of Ingres and Matisse and Manet's Olympia. Starkly unclad, the model is elevated and on display for the viewer's pleasure.
In the mid 1970s, Wesselmann's renderings of the face become more representational, although the features are only slightly integrated and do not reflect personality or human presence. Carol Nude is the earliest example of this development. The titles of his works also shift from the generic, to the names of his models. Carol's identity is visually suggested, but only superficially, remaining tantalisingly unattainable. A generic appearance is maintained through the reduction of her facial features and in the stylisation of her eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, and eyelashes, appearing unified as one component. His renderings of the eyes are an extension of his handling of the mouth in earlier works. Erotically weighted, her eyes and lips compete equally with her nipples, breasts, and pubic area. The vaguery of her other features have made her a concentrated lascivious form.
Offended by the perception of his work being linked to pornography, Wesselmann revealed that his paintings operated on an autobiographical level, serving as depictions of his life with his wife, Claire. Pornography was illegal at this time and he claims that he had seen almost none. Although his nudes are explicit, there are never explicit actions. In rebuke to the pornographic insinuations, he comments in the main monograph Tom Wesselmann, written by him under the assumed name and persona of Slim Stealingworth: 'Wesselmann took his spread leg nudes as an aggressive image and also as an expression of his joy at rediscovering sex, following the breakup of his first marriage. He was irritated with critics that spoke of the nudes as girly magazine material. The nudes were an expression of his delight at rediscovering that his girlfriend would make such gestures and poses naturally, as a part of sexual pleasure and communication.' (Wesselmann (as S. Stealingworth), Tom Wesselmann New York, 1980, p.23)
Another significant feature of Wesselmann's paintings of the late 70s would be the addition of his whimsically shaped canvases, which increased the dynamic intensity of his painting. Although, some of his earlier works were also on shaped canvases, they tended to be harmonious with the shape of the figure and composition. Here, though a tension is created by the organic sinuous curves of the figure juxtaposed with the serrated edges of the canvas. The disequilibrium of the irregularly shaped canvas increases the excitement and complexity of the painting.
The suggestion of real life is dismantled in the exaggerated scale in many of Wesselmann's figurative and still-life paintings. He says, "to do it that size transformed it into a whole different existenceI realised that the scale was a critical, crucial factor" (Wesselmann, quoted in I. Sandler, 'Interview with Tom Wesselmann,' 1984, reproduced at Smithsonian Archives of American Art Online.) The billboard scale contributes to the perceptual experience of viewing his work and diminishes the potential for erotic associations. Challenging the scale used by the Abstract Expressionists, his realist pictures are convincing and add another layer of meaning to the work. His exploration of scale in figuration is considered to be one of his greatest additions to the development of American painting.
Wesselmann's art helped to define one of the most significant art movements in the twentieth century, representing a new quest for realism. He captures in his smiling, glossy images an unexpectedly complex sociological and literary narrative. Embracing the California counter-culture where cool ruled, Carol Nude's bronzed bikini lined body signifies to the viewer the social upheaval that had taken over American youth. The Beach Boys sang songs that encouraged surfing and fun in the sun, announcing the loosening of mores. Carol Nude represents the sexed-up Seventies and the turbulent society that was dominant.