In Tom Wesselmann's Seascape #4, two supple, bronzed feet recline along a stretch of sandy beach. In the mid-1960s, Wesselmann began working on an expansive scale, painting close-up, fragmented views of the female body with splashy colors and tight outlines. Painted in 1965, the work's streamlined, banded structure reflects a new potency and economy of form within Wesselmann's art during his creative peak. Drawing on the canonical tradition of the nude and the hard-edge clarity of the geometric abstract painters, Wesselmann creates--on a vast scale--a work that shows Pop's sublimation of traditions past and present. With splashy colors and gleaming, pristine surfaces, the 1965 work vibrates with the immediacy and sensuality of POP.
Seascape #4, with its bringt colors and slick surface, announce Wesselmann at the peak of his creative ingenuity. Calculated intervals of flattened planes of color and modulated forms create a pattern of flavorful geometry, resulting in a visually rich experience triggered by a small, simple object. The flatness of his color, the shallowness of his compositions, the suave paint handling and the presence or intimation of the female nude remain indelible signatures of Wesselmann's style. Sleek, hard-edge, mostly pink silhouettes of reclining female torsos or big cutout lips exhaling clouds of cigarette smoke were distinguished from his fellow Pop artists by a sensuous heat and close-up intimacy that were one part sex and four parts astutely considered color and scale. The images were distant relatives of pinups, filtered through the billboard genre, but with a formal infrastructure developed from careful attention to the paintings of de Kooning, Matisse and Mondrian.
Wesselmann came to his Seascape series after his vacation to Cape Cod with his wife, Claire. There, the artist found inspiration in the simple, banded forms of ocean, sky and sand. Rendered in primary hues of yellow, white, blue and sienna red, the work brings to mind the pure abstractions by Piet Mondrian as it evokes glossy, color-saturated magazine advertisements. In Seascape #4%, Wesselmann offers a taste of the commodity fantasy by painting each tanned toe with candy-orange nail polish. According to Peter Schjeldahl, "The presence of this erotic creature is felt even when she isn't in sight, as in the frequent still lifes. And even when details of her anatomy (and all we get in this show are details) are displayed against an outdoor backdrop...The sense of luxurious, kitschy ambiance is quiet as strong as ever" (P. Schjeldahl, "Pop Goes the Sister's Playmate, The New York Times, 19 April 1970).
The artist's interest in the female nude recalls the powerful influence of Willem de Kooning on his work. Wesselmann recalled, "I wanted to paint like de Kooning, but...It wasn't my language. But I was so excited by the ideas of de Kooning that I was determined to find my own way" (T. Wesselmann, quoted in S. Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, 1994, p. 16). Instead, Wesselmann realizes his figurative elements in flat colors and in zoomed-in, fragmented views. Deliberately diverging from the methods of his hero de Kooning, Wesselmann considered himself "like a Rousseau among the cubists" (T. Wesselmann quoted in op. cit., p. 128).
In fact, Seascape #4 becomes a type of updated retrospective, working through traditional artistic problems by way of new means, inspired by both splashy commercial imagery and the planar, flat tones of the Color Field painters; Wesselmann creates a painterly vernacular that becomes synonymous with the high point of Pop.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814. Muse du Louvre, Paris. Gianni Dagli Orti / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY