New York, Tanager Gallery, Group Show, 1962
Katonah, The Katonah Gallery, American Painting 1900-1976: Abstract Expressionism and Later Movements, Part III B, July - September 1976
Great American Nude #21 is a hallmark of Tom Wesselmann's signature series, begun in 1961 almost simultaneously with Roy Lichtenstein's experiments in comic strip imagery and Andy Warhol's first appropriations of commercial products. The importance of this work is not only relevant within Wesselmann's own prodigious and innovative oeuvre; Great American Nude #21 is also prototypical and seminal Pop Art. The Great American Nude series is an iconic paradigm of assemblage art with as keen a sense of American popular culture and of the power of imagery as any of his contemporaries in the avant-garde of the 1960s. Contrary to easel painting or carved sculpture, assemblage is composed of heterogeneous elements, whose significance is particular to the artist or to the viewer. Culled from disparate sources, the individual images come to Wesselmann's work with their own inherent definitions often in the form of clichés or archetypes, but in Wesselmann's hands, the components are unified into a whole with heightened impact and potency. As his first major creation, the Great American Nudes are among the quintessential icons of American Pop Art, and the present example is one of the most consummate expressions of Wesselmann's endeavor.
Using his title to ironically play off concepts such as the Great American Novel or the American Dream, Wesselmann paints the intimate in the language of the public, his dazzling colors irresistibly drawing our gaze into a world of easy sensuality and pleasurable gratification. He reinterprets the tradition of the reclining nude, from Titian's Venus to Matisse's Large Reclining Nude, to reflect the tastes and expectations of the American public of his day. Wesselmann candidly acknowledged the role of historical models in his work. ``When I made the decision in 1959 that I was not going to be an abstract painter; that I was going to be a representational painter. ...I only got started by doing the opposite of everything I loved. And in choosing representational painting, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still-lifes, landscapes, interiors, etc. ....'' (artist quoted in Marc Livingstone, ``Tom Wesselmann: Telling It Like It Is'' in Exh. Cat., Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Tom Wesselmann, a Retrospective Survey 1969-1992, 1993, p. 21) Wesselmann borrowed the imagery and visual vocabulary of billboard advertisements, creating simplified and brightly colored nudes that speak of an era of rising consumerism in America, increased permissiveness and the use of sexuality to sell commercial products. Wesselman's later nudes are explicit and specific in stark contrast to his early 1960s nudes such as the present work in which the soft curves and undefined anatomy lack detail or complexity. This figure, like Matisse's reclining nudes, is sinuous and reductive, highlighted and characterized by the single indicator of the smiling mouth. Like the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat, this Great American Nude is summed up by a single feature in conjunction with her languid pose.
The Great American Nude series as a whole stands as both one of the peaks and also the foundations of his entire career, with Great American Nude #21 holding within itself the seeds of much of his later development, from the Bedroom series to his Mouth paintings and Still-lifes. A major masterpiece, Great American Nude #21 illustrates Wesselmann's centrality within Pop Art, to which – in the words of Marco Livingstone – he made "such an important and visually potent contribution" (Marco Livingstone, "Wesselmann and the Great American Pop Art Movement" in Exh. Cat., Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Tom Wesselmann, 2005, p. 176) The series started as a discipline: a way for Wesselmann to define himself amongst the many artists and movements in New York at that time. Reacting against the elite painterliness and hermeticism of Abstract Expressionism, he decided to limit himself largely to the national colors of red, white and blue as well as related patriotic colors such as the gold fringe on a flag or the khaki of an army uniform.
He adopted the Duchampian paradigm by incorporating found objects such as printed images of fruit, liquor bottles and the President with actual objects applied to his surface as in the quilted Old Glory that holds pride of place in the composition of Great American Nude #21. His approach was however not as intellectual as that of Jasper Johns, another great practitioner of Duchampian principles. For Johns, his adoption of the American flag as pictorial imagery functioned only as a determinate that allowed him to focus on the process of painting rather than the subject matter or composition. For Wesselmann, the flag is just as much ``what you see is what you see'', but like Robert Rauschenberg, Wesselmann's symbol exists within a collage of imagery overloaded with multiple associations and overlapping content. The pose and smile of the nude exudes confidence not unlike the portrait of a young and vital President that dominates the foreshortened room. The flag motif is strongly echoed and emphasized by the decorative stars, the tricolors of the bed linens, the blue and white striped pillow and the red drapery which is pulled aside to reveal an inviting flower-festooned residence typical of the American Dream of comfort and home.
America in the early 1960s was a buoyant and affluent society still enjoying the post-war boom of optimism and productivity. The underlying tensions and fault lines that would surface later in the decade were far removed from the predominant mood of the country. John F. Kennedy's portrait speaks to us now of tragedy to come and lost opportunity but to Wesselmann's viewers, President Kennedy symbolized a heroic nation on the rise. It is little wonder that the artists of the day, Wesselmann among them, quoted from such overripe and universal imagery when merging the availability of popular culture with the power of art to investigate the nature of perception and meaning. Few generations of artists have produced masterpieces with such lasting iconic status as Jasper Johns, Flag (1954-55). Few eras have produced such a witty and ironic body of work as Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe which he distilled to their essence in the serialized diptych of her sensual lips, a playful corollary to the lips in Great American Nude #21 and Wesselmann's erotic Smoker series. In his turn, Rauschenberg adapted his use of silkscreen to orchestrate a symphony of imagery of Americana, from portraits of a forceful JFK to the 1960s Space Race, the American Eagle and industrial innovation captured in his Colored Silkscreen masterpieces. Among the painted and plaster objects available to consumers in Oldenburg's universe of Store items, the American Flag seemed as commercial a brand image as his ``7-Up'' logo. Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nude #21 and its sister paintings from the early 1960s not only engage in a dialogue with these other masterpieces, they are themselves American originals. First among equals, Great American Nude #21 establishes Wesselmann as a master of collage, color and content.
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