Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 24
Tom Wesselmann’s seminal Great American Nude series effectively propelled the artist to the forefront of the American Pop art movement of the 1960s. Great American Nude #49 is an early example, completed just two years after the first of the series and concurrent with the advent of Pop. Though largely inspired by the artists and aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Wesselmann sought to distance himself from its overall elitist, exclusionary milieu. Rejecting abstraction, he instead embraced the deadpan style of Pop, and retrofit it to the traditional nude and still-life genres. His Great American Nude series set him apart from fellow Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, helping to shape his distinct, artistic identity. The works embody a combination of dense cultural critique and crude artistic expression—intellectually stimulating and visually captivating. With this series, Wesselmann implemented the vibrant colors and commercial imagery of Pop art to revisit and rework the timeless subject of the female nude.
The present example recalls the sultry, odalisque women frequently featured in the works of 20th century artists like Willem de Kooning and Henri Matisse, both of whom Wesselmann greatly admired. Rendered with minimal detail, Great American Nude #49 depicts a female figure, propped and positioned as the object of the artist’s focus. Though this composition conjures a familiar theme—the male gaze—Wesselmann's version is more playful, offering a nuanced take on the discourse around the objectification of women in art. The small bird perched on her fingerless hand, for example, evokes Courbet’s La Femme au Perroquet from 1866. Initially rejected for indecency, La Femme au Perroquet was the first nude of Courbet’s to be accepted into the Paris Salon in the 1860s. Great American Nude #49 exists in direct conversation with this moment in art history, joining past and present. Instead of drawing the figure in the present work from memory or from a studio model, Wesselmann experimented with something completely new. For the present work, he asked his model, Sarah, to lay directly onto his prepared board. Slim Stealingworth elaborates on this: "A few of the nudes, most notably Great American Nude #49, were drawn around the reclining nude model lying on the surface of the painting" (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 24). The incorporation of a live model's body onto the surface recalls Yves Klein's Anthropometry performances in 1960 in Paris as well as Kazuo Shiraga's acrobatic paintings in which he utilized his entire body to swirl, cast and heave paint across the surface.
The technique of assemblage plays an important role in the present composition. Stripped of their former contexts, the disparate elements unite under the artist’s hand to convey a new, heightened significance. Wesselmann juxtaposes a segmented reproduction of Van Gogh’s 1889 Wheat Field with Cypresses against a bright blue block of color, visually marrying a recognized example of high art with Pop. Further, a small canvas vignette of an American domestic interior has been affixed to the center of the orange-painted board. This still life—which features cut outs of Campari, a rotary telephone, red peppers, a piping hot home-cooked American dinner, an ancient Greek head and a reproduction of Paul Cézanne's Rideau, Cruchon et Compôtier from 1893-1894 (formerly in the prestigious collections of Alfred Barnes and John Hay Whitney) against a flattened blue and white plaid tablecloth—was formerly known as Little Still Life #6. A cryptic studio annotation confirms that this small work was "used in GAN #49" and so exists Wesselmann's first moment of self-reference as an artist. Keenly aware of his status at the forefront of the cutting-edge Pop art movement, Wesselmann parodies the culture of both 1960s American mass consumerism and himself. With this, Great American Nude #49 stands as a summation of Pop art itself, melding high art with mass media and his own self-awareness.
Great American Nude #49 showcases the artist’s unique ability to simultaneously critique and celebrate American society in the 1960s, exploring and exposing the allegory of the American Dream. During a time when artists were growing increasingly upset by the manner in which conformity and mass consumption had come to define the American identity, Wesselmann embraced these forms in his work. He controversially unveils the parallels between recognized examples of fine art and the widely consumed, frequently reproduced images of mass media. Borrowing from a wide range of sources—the 19th Century European Salon, the post-Impressionist landscapes of Arles and the emerging, iconic imagery from mid-20th century America—Wesselmann created the possibility for fresh meanings and new conversations. Full of irony, Great American Nude #49 candidly challenges the conception of high art in America, forever impacting the trajectory of American Pop art.
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