Vast and overwhelming, the woman in Great American Nude #88 dominates the shaped canvas. Floating surreally within a field of pink flesh are nipples and pubic hair and a wide, gasping mouth, hinting at a raunchy narrative and ensuring that the viewer cannot ignore the highly sexed atmosphere of the image. Painted in 1967, this painting dates from a period of intense productivity for the artist that was also marked by increasing recognition. His exhibitions were receiving rave reviews, his paintings were being bought, and he was beginning to travel more and more outside New York. Indeed, Wesselmann himself assigned the increasing prominence of seascapes in his works of this time to his visits to Cape Cod.
There is an exuberant joyfulness in this picture. It has a poster-like impact, searing its dazzling light vision of sex and sea into the mind of the viewer. It was in paintings such as Great American Nude #88 that Wesselmann put the POP! into Pop. The gasping, splayed model in Great American Nude #88 is the extreme and overt reincarnation of the endless promises of an elusive sublimation that fuel advertising images, adding another Pop dimension to the work. In this context, the painting exposes and thereby undermines the glamorous images that are created to goad and tempt us into purchasing this or that, buying into a lifestyle choice.
As well as confronting the world of popular imagery, Great American Nude #88 confronts the world of painting and the legacy of the painters who were Wesselmann's predecessors. With their use of a visual style that owes itself to advertising as much as to Matisse, the Great American Nudes teeter on the brink between Pop figuration and abstraction, an effect heightened by the larger-than-life scale upon which he painted them. It is telling that he cited two of his polarised early influences as de Kooning and Mondrian, for Great American Nude #88 appears to occupy some strange disputed territory between the two. Superficially, de Kooning is present in the subject matter, but his ghost also lingers in the very deliberate avoidance of any Abstract Expressionist techniques. Wesselmann had found that the exuberant Action Painting techniques favoured by so many artists in the 1950s did not suit his personality, and resolved himself to finding a solution that allowed him to confront the legacy of de Kooning while tapping into his own character. The Mondrian-like 'neatness' of Great American Nude #88 was the result, with its deep sense of control and concentration. Most of the canvas is covered with the barely-articulated pink of the nude's flesh, while deliberately unmodulated blocks of black and blue are used for the stockings, sea and the sky. In this way, Wesselmann has taken the nude to the edge of abstraction, yet it remains resolutely figurative-- and indeed explicit.
Wesselmann himself objected to claims that his work was erotic or salacious, pointing out that the nude as subject matter is not erotic in itself. In his works, there are no explicit actions. Like beauty, it is all in the eye of the beholder:
'Virtually everything I've done that's erotic is just nudity. Now it's true there is suggestiveness or there's implication. I haven't done a single thing yet where there is anything taking place. It's true you might find a woman with her head thrown back and her tongue out or her mouth open, and it's clear she's probably having an orgasm or being eaten or whatever like that, but there's no reason to assume that, no reason whatsoever to assume that other than what you know is in my mind which is in my mind-- somebody's eating her pussy or something like that. Something like that is taking place; that's why her head is that way. But it's not depicted. The only thing objectionable about the work really is just the fact that there's nudity or suggestiveness, but the suggestiveness is so vague that you can't hang a man for being suggestive' (Wesselmann, quoted in I. Sandler, 'Interview with Tom Wesselmann', 1984, reproduced at Smithsonian Archives of American Art Online).
The suggestion that his work was linked to pornography likewise angered Wesselmann, who pointed out that actually during the 1960s, explicit material was illegal. In refuting this, Wesselmann revealed a far more personal level in the content of his paintings: he had seen almost no pornography by the time that Great American Nude #88 was painted, and what he had seen he recalled as being particularly tame. Instead, this was a subject that was autobiographical and depicted his life with his then girlfriend (and later, wife) Claire, as is reflected in his 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 discovering that his girl friend 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).
This sense of the autobiographical is emphasised by the fact that Great American Nude #88 is revealing but is not erotic. While this is in part due to the deliberate eschewal of any narrative sexual details, to the censoring of the image so that it gives only hints (albeit blatant) about the context, it is also due to the sheer scale of the shaped canvas. By blowing the image of the naked woman up to a vast, larger-than-life size reminiscent of posters, Wesselmann has managed to diffuse the content, a technique analysed by the artist under his pseudonym:
'Historically, the nude as a subject has a somewhat intimate and personal relationship to the viewer, even if only in terms of scale. By their larger scale, Wesselmann's nudes now transcended these characteristics. They abandoned human relationships and as a presence became more blunt and aggressive. Wesselmann was aware of a relationship between scale and eroticism. Too big a scale and eroticism decreases-- perhaps because it is too hard to relate to a fifteen-foot woman. But this decrease in eroticism was a good reason to make the images bigger-- these nudes could freely be less erotic, and the total image more blunt and compelling, especially in that the interest could more easily shift from the nude to the rest of the image' (Wesselmann (as Stealingworth), ibid., p. 33).
This use of scale also adds to the quasi-abstraction of the oversized colour fields in fleshy pink and in blue, heightening the mock-Mondrian effect upon which the composition relies. The size of the skin-coloured area also throws the few isolated details-- mouth, pubis, breasts-- into bold and surrealistic relief. This recalls the collage objects and cuttings that have often featured in his works; indeed, many of the mouths in his paintings are based on magazine cuttings. At the same time, this isolation of these sensual parts of the woman's body have sometimes been considered an act of objectification, the woman reduced to these constituent parts, but in the light of Wesselmann's admission about the autobiographical nature of his paintings instead reveals itself as a translation of the artist's own subjective feelings. Both in compositional and personal terms, the focus on these particular elements is an invitation into the intimate world of the artist:
'I feel naive and I imagine myself lying in bed with my lover, my wife, and I look up and see this beautiful breast, beautiful, hanging there and I become aware of other things around it, and that's all there is to it -- just a visual moment, an intense focus' (Wesselmann, quoted in Sandler, op.cit.).