Wesselmann and model, 1966-1972, photography by Bob Adelman c 2003
Andy Warhol, Orange Marilyn, 1962 c 2003 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York
Great American Nude No. 68, 1965 depicts a bronzed, blonde bathing beauty. It captures the era where California cool ruled and the Beach Boys were imploring America to go surfing. The counter-culture and the social upheaval that accompanied it had yet to take full control of youth culture. Still though there had been a loosening of social mores and the present picture captures the combination of the 1950s American ideal with the evolving sexed-up and turbulent society that would soon come to dominate it.
The Great American Nude is a perfect metaphor for Post-War America's self-aggrandized accomplishments. In these paintings and collages, Wesselmann surrounds the nubile body of a young woman with a plethora of consumer goods or shows her enjoying success by recreating as in the present picture. Perhaps no one more embodied this sense of America as the successful new-comer as Marilyn Monroe. From humble roots she stole America's hearts and became its sexual ideal. Though Wesselmann tended not to include specific features particularly in his early paintings, the blond hair of Great American Nude No. 68 invokes one of Marilyn's most remarkable features- her dyed platinum blonde hair and through it the hedonistic pleasures of a prosperous society.
Tom Wesselmann was inspired to do his series of Great American Nudes in late 1959 or early 1960 when he had a dream about the words "Red, White and Blue." These early works tended to be collages that incorporated still-life elements that tended toward consumer products, celebrity or American historical figures flanking a luscious nude. By the mid-1960s Wesselmann had developed substantially as a technical artist and his works began to focus on painterly concerns. Though overtly erotic, Great American Nude No. 68 is also the painting of a great colorist, technician and employs strong compositional juxtapositions to accomplish its goal. Having begun his painting career aping the Abstract Expressionism, Wesselmann struggled between his dueling inclinations toward abstraction and realism. In Great American Nude No. 68 Wesselmann has achieved the perfect synthesis. The billowing white clouds and swaths of different blues in the sky and water and yellow, red and tans of the body and beach owe as much to Color Field painting as to Pop. Wesselmann, the painter, was equally concerned with the relationship of forms and colors as he was with being the provocateur.
In 1966 Wesselmann would embark upon his celebrated series of Seascapes. Great American Nude No. 68 is the direct predecessor to and inspiration for these paintings. In the Seascapes Wesselmann would employ the same compositional tools and luxuriate in the bold colors of Great American Nude No. 68. The present painting is extraordinary though in that it depicts the entire body and head of the titillating nude while the Seascapes would only focus on one element of the nude like the leg, foot or breast.