The reclining female in Drawing for Nude on a Couch was a recurring one in Wesselemann’s oeuvre and was greatly influenced by Henri Matisse. Wesselmann expressed his appreciation through collaging of Matisse’s imagery in such works as Great American Nude #26, 1962, or, as in the present work, the figure directly recalls Matisse’s masterpiece, Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude), 1935. However, unlike Matisse’s figures, which are safely considered classical models, Wesselmann’s nudes shocked audiences with their overt sexuality and thereby are heirs to the legacy of Manet’s Olympia (1863). The tan lines confirm her disrobed state and suggest a change in character from classical subject to provocateur. Only the lack of eyes prevents the eroticism of the pose from overwhelming the carefully constructed structure of the image. Unlike Manet’s courtesan who powerfully confronts the viewer, the focus of Wesselemann’s female is unknown, the tension is defused, and the form functions within Wesselemann’s visual logic.
Matisse’s line greatly influenced Wesselmann’s drawing, but he quickly established his own distinctive style that incorporated his background as a cartoonist, as well as the stylization of contemporary visual culture and mass media. Drawing for Nude on a Couch is the archetypal Wesselmann nude consisting of a series of sensual positive and negative spaces strongly delineated through varying line weight. Like Matisse, Wesselmann relied on line to create structure and often allowed it to nearly flat on the surface.
The theme of two-dimensionality continues through to structure of the space in Drawing for Nude on a Couch and also reflected the influence of the Abstract Expressionists on Wesselmann’s work. The flatness of the drawing mimics the visual effects created by Wesselmann’s collages and each element appears to rest on top of the canvas. The female figure is pressed like a paper cut-out on the ambiguously formed couch. It, in turn, sits against a backdrop that refuses to recede into the background despite the change in scale from the traditional still-life and flower arrangement along the line of the hip to the prototypical American home with its white clapboard siding that defies Cartesian perspective.
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