Lot 49
  • 49

Tom Wesselmann

Estimate
1,800,000 - 2,500,000 GBP
Sold
2,057,250 GBP
bidding is closed

Description

  • Tom Wesselmann
  • Bedroom Painting #1
  • signed, titled and dated 1967 on the reverse
  • oil on shaped canvas

Provenance

Georges Marci, Monaco
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art, 4 December 1975, Lot 248
Private Collection, Tel Aviv
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

London, Hayward Gallery, Pop Art, 1969, no. 164

Literature

Slim Stealingworth, Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 57 illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

If Tom Wesselmann's Pop vision is associated with one single image it is this: the recumbent, libidinous female as seen here in Bedroom Painting #1. The first in a series of seventy-eight numbered paintings, this is a landmark work which saw the artist evolve the core themes of his Great American Nudes into an altogether new corpus of work which fused the revered odalisques of art historical tradition with the prurient Playboy pinups of contemporary popular culture. Executed in 1967, it is a vintage work that beautifully embodies his primary contribution to the explosion of American Pop Art that took the New York art world by storm in the 1960s. Recreating the monumental scale of the advertising billboards from which Wesselmann derived his iconoclastic iconography, this is one of the earliest and finest examples of his shaped canvases. Effortlessly combining the sacred and the profane, throughout the 1960s Wesselmann developed a signature style that mixed elements purloined from the canon of Fine Art, in particular the Matissian nude, with inane images extracted from the ubiquitous mass-media advertisements.

 

Made the year after Wesselmann joined the Sidney Janis Gallery, at a time when he was buoyed by huge commercial success, Bedroom Painting #1 shows the artist at the height of his powers. Now confident and expert at using an overhead projector to enlarge his initial drawings, he moves towards a much more expansive, dizzying scale. Unlike earlier works which incorporated elements of collage – both fabric and manufactured domestic objects – here he relies on oils alone to create a fabulously flat surface that imitates the de-personalised, airbrushed elegance of advertisements. Wesselmann's female is blank, anonymous, stereotyped according to mass-media standards that rob her of all individuality. In Bedroom Painting #1, she is reduced to improbably long, slender legs, which serve as a synecdoche for the idealised female form. Ironically, this quintessentially twentieth-century mode of expression which could not exist without the mass-media, looks back to the neo-classical ideal of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Like Wesselmann's women, the impossible curves of Ingres's odalisques were not representative of the physiognomies of the nineteenth-century female form, but were the manifestations of the projected desires of a specific aesthetic era. Plastic and flat, the confidently schematised forms of Wesselmann's nudes are similarly the by-product of their specific time, a hyperbole of the vapid Miss Americas that populate advertising hoardings peddling branded products. In the age which witnessed the burgeoning growth of consumerism, they are an amplification of the statement that sex sells.

 

In Bedroom Painting #1, the female form is subtly sexualised through the fetishized focus on her feet. Although much less overt than some of flagrantly erotic works in the Great American Nude series, the composition is nonetheless sexually invested. The way one leg rests seductively on top of the other, the toes gently curled, shows Wesselmann's knowledge of the nude in art history, in particular Titian and Ingres, through to contemporary gesturing and the coquettish poses of pin-up glamour models. The toe-nails, painted luscious red, are exactly evocative of the 1960s, the decade that witnessed the wider uptake of Women's Liberation, the sexual revolution and a relaxation of sexual mores. The faux leopard skin bedspread, the flowers and fruit bowl by the bed, are suggestive of extra-marital encounters in hotel rooms and apartments. By deliberately cropping the female form and by not depicting the erogenous zones, until now the focus of Wesselmann's nudes, the artist adopts the deliberately seductive strategies employed by advertising agencies, where by revealing less the image becomes more alluring. It also has the effect of redressing the balance with the other objects in the composition, which hitherto had been merely the backdrop to the nude.

 

Part of the brave new collective impulse of Pop, it is difficult today in our media-saturated world to fully grasp the potency of this painting when it was first exhibited. To use images from popular magazines, especially in Wesselmann's cool, sardonic and ostensibly impersonal manner, seemed an affront to those who valued the heroic spiritual aspirations of the Abstract Expressionists. Reacting against de Kooning in particular, an artist whom he nonetheless admired for his gut-wrenching immediacy, Wesselmann set about challenging the cult of automatism and spontaneity on which the older generation based their claims of authenticity. In his search for a new visual vocabulary, Bedroom Painting #1 shows Wesselmann to be just as formally adroit, historically informed and aesthetically ambitious as his Abstract Expressionist predecessors. The present work reveals the artist's complete mastery of line and his ability to achieve the illusion of depth with the least possible amount of modelling.

Despite the apparent simplicity of his subject matter, which was interpreted by many, including Clement Greenberg, as being too readily recognizable and easily accessible to qualify as high art, Wesselmann's Pop vision belied a much deeper conceptual understanding of how the modern media was affecting modern life. While Andy Warhol's screen-printing technique replicated the mechanics of mass-media image making, Wesselmann's art honed in on the seductive strategies employed by advertising agencies. Enshrining the subliminal appeal of glamorous images that seek  to awaken the desires rather than needs of the new consumer-driven psyche, the Bedroom Paintings both expose and undermine the marketing tactics of big business. In an age where the mass-media – a newly coined term – was a focal point for critical discourse, Wesselmann demonstrates an astute and precocious understanding of its potential impact.

 

On the one hand posing an authoritative challenge to social hypocrisy and moral prudery, Bedroom Painting #1 is also a mocking satire of contemporary American life and the idealised Great American Dream. The first in what is recognised as one of Wesselmann's most important series, this important work perfectly sums up his inestimable contribution to the revolution in aesthetics in the 1960s art world.

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