‘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’, in S.H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London, 1997, pp. 112-17).
Tom Wesselmann’s Study for Nude Aquatint is a spectacularly suggestive painting of a reclining female nude, the artist’s most iconic subject. Lounging seductively within a tight formal composition, the female nude exposes her lounging body to the viewer in a manner that immediately recalls Manet’s famous Olympia, 1863, or Matisse’s Odalisques. This is a modern interpretation of the classic female nude, which Wesselmann famously pioneered in his seminal Great American Nude and Still Life series in the 1960s. Painted in 1980, this work perfectly captures the artist’s transition towards a more refined, flattened and bold aesthetic and heightened definition in his rendering of the female nude in the late 1970s and 1980s. With the vibrancy and freshness of Pop, Wesselmann transforms the revered art historical subject of the reclining nude into the figure of a slick, blonde-haired pinup girl, appearing almost digitally generated or graphically designed. The composition is flat and yet the elements push and pull against one another to create a visually exciting experience. Whilst appearing to stare out at the viewer in direct contemplation, the sitter’s eyes are in fact entirely absent; only the pouting red full lips, the most seductive facial features, are portrayed. And yet even they clamour for attention as the viewer’s eye meanders down the subject’s body that is dynamically positioned within a brightly coloured, comfortable middle-class interior.
Wesselmann’s nudes are anonymous, yet contemporary muses – they are everyday women elevated to High Art's pedestal of ideal. Talking about his propensity to depict his figures anonymously Wesselmann claimed, ‘from the very beginning I did not put faces on them, because I liked the painting to have a kind of action that would sweep through it, and certain things would slow that down: too much detail could slow it down. A face on the nude became like a personality and changed the whole feel of the work, made it more like a portrait nude and I didn't like that’ (T. Wesselmann, quoted in T. Buchsteiner and O. Letze, Tom Wesselmann, Ostfildern 1996, p. 11). While Wesselmann revealed that his paintings operated on an autobiographical level, serving as depictions of his wife, it is through this superficial anonymity that Wesselmann’s perfectionist imagery can revel in the banality of modern fantasies about sexual freedom, power and beauty.