Arman, New York
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, Europe
Sotheby's, London, 21 June 2006, Lot 29 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Basel, Fondation Beyeler; and Vienna, Kunstforum Wien, Eros in der Kunst Moderne, October 2006 - July 2007, pp. 162-63, illustrated in colour (Basel); and n.p., illustrated in colour (inside cover) (Vienna)
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Nude: From Modigliani to Currin, September - November 2016, p. 97 and 184, illustrated in colour
Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 24.
Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nudes are among the quintessential icons of American Pop art. Instantly recognisable, they are as emblematically representative of the movement as Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe silkscreens.
Along with Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, and Rosenquist, Wesselmann was one of the original five of American Pop art who "unknown to each other" (according to Warhol), at the beginning of the sixties came "rising up out of the muck and staggering forward" (Andy Warhol cited in: Pat Hackett, Ed., POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York 1983, p. 3). They had no shared manifesto and their styles initially developed separately. But from the beginning they shared similar objectives: to depersonalise their art and react against Abstract Expressionism's elite painterliness and hermeticism. Adopting the images and visual vocabulary of contemporary popular culture, from consumer products to advertising billboards, they sought to reconnect art with everyday life. "The art galleries are being invaded by the pin headed and contemptible style of gum chewers, bobby soxers and worse, delinquents" was the horrified reaction of one critic in 1962 (Max Kozloff, ‘Pop Culture, Metaphysical Disgust and the New Vulgarians’, Art International, Vol. VI, No. 2, 1962, pp. 34-36). At a symposium on Pop art held in December of the same year, the critic Henry Geldzahler wondered at the rapid rise and success of this new artistic movement: "within a year and a half they have had shows, been dubbed a movement, and we are here discussing them at a symposium" (Henry Geldzahler, ‘A Symposium on Pop Art’, Arts Magazine, April 1963, special supplement, p. 37).
Like his fellow Pop artists, Wesselmann was responding to a period of increasing affluence in America, but it was not only the thriving consumer economy that spurred his interest, it was also the increasingly relaxed attitudes towards sexual relations. Wesselmann's bright billboard nudes borrow the imagery of seductive advertisements and pin-up models, but are transposed to the intimacy of an indoor setting. His nudes lounge unselfconsciously in a world of bedrooms and bathrooms, often surrounded by the props and trophies of the American middle class, of which they are a part. Their blatant nudity and the intimate setting give the works a peepshow quality, but the models are deprived of the eyes to notice or challenge the viewer’s voyeurism. With a stick-on smile (in some works it was literally pasted onto the face, a cut-out from a glossy magazine) they absorb our interest with blank indifference. If eyes are the 'windows of the soul', then Wesselmann's eyeless American nudes have no souls to show. In the era of mass-production, even sex can be serialised and commodified.
In Great American Nude #87, however, the unabashed sensuality is accompanied by an urgency and immediacy – she is demanding and expecting sex. The vast swath of leopard skin adds a gaudy and hypnotic intensity, while the extremities of her distended body disappear off the edge of the composition, like a snapshot. The flat bright colours thrust the image forward off the canvas and into the viewer's space and the realism of her pose contrasts disquietingly with the sterile and clean artificiality of the remainder. The added upholstery hair makes what is obviously fake suddenly seem shockingly real. We are forced to recognise in this blonde bombshell fantasy, something abrasively material – something which the stylised and depersonalised remainder would otherwise allow us tactfully to evade.
Like Rauschenberg, the foundations of Wesselmann's art lay in collage and the inclusion of found objects, and this influence carries through into this painting. Hard outlines and clearly defined fields of colour give the impression of objects superimposed upon each other. His nudes could be disassembled by colour into a series of separate elements: red lips, toenails and nipples, blonde hair, pink flesh. It is a remarkable feat of simplification that this combination of simple references can be assembled to make the recognisable image of a naked woman. But despite the boldness of his style and the rebellious Pop art credentials, Wesselmann's nudes clearly show the influence of Matisse in their flowing curves and simple, bright colours, as well as a constant awareness – often playful – of the long tradition of the reclining female nude, from Titian's venuses through Manet's Olympia. As the title of his series suggests, ironically alluding to concepts such as the Great American Novel or the American Dream, he has reinterpreted this tradition to comment on the tastes and expectations of the American public of his day.
If the Great American Nude series is a progression, an artistic vein that had to be worked out and developed to its full potential, then Great American Nude #87 stands at the climax of the sequence, and exemplifies Wesselmann’s historical importance within Pop art.
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