Drawing for Great American Nude #21 is an early example of Tom Wesselmann’s renowned and career-defining series of Great American Nudes. Begun in 1961, this seminal series first brought Wesselmann to the attention of the art world: bold, punchy and alluring, the Great American Nudes are quintessential icons of American Pop art. The present work has been masterfully rendered in charcoal on paper and depicts a reclining nude in an all-American interior setting. The scene is as erotic as it is patriotic: the protagonist lies seductively on a bed, her arms poised behind her head; the space around her is adorned with star and stripe emblems, and a poster of a waving ‘Old Glory’ flag hangs pride of place on the wall. As the artist once proclaimed, “Painting, sex and humor are the most important things in my life” (Tom Wesselmann cited in: Hilarie M. Sheets, Graham Bowley and Brett Sokol, ‘Wesselmann’s Nudes Uncovered at Show’, The New York Times, 10 September 2015, online). Composed both at the dawn of the sexual liberation movement, and at a time of great economic prosperity following the post-war boom, Drawing for Great American Nude #21 is a true celebration of America in the early 1960s.
Executed in 1961, the present work on paper was created as a charcoal study for a painting of equal dimensions, which was produced in the same year. Entitled Great American Nude #21, Wesselmann’s painted counterpart belongs to a private collection, and is almost identical in composition. Monumental drawings such as the present constitute a large and vital part of Wesselmann’s oeuvre and were of profound significance to the emergence of his idiosyncratic style. Characterised by a raw and direct immediacy, these works presented the artist with a means to explore many of the overarching themes and stylistic tendencies of his iconic Pop art vernacular. Today, examples of Wesselmann’s works on paper are housed in a number of notable museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. As art historian Constance W. Glenn has remarked, Wesselmann was “a surprisingly sophisticated draughtsman with a great gift for a long, expansive Matisse-inspired line” (Constance W. Glenn, ‘Wesselmann and Drawing’ in: Exh. Cat., Rome, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Tom Wesselmann, 2005, p. 237). Wesselmann was certainly greatly influenced by Henri Matisse, and his charcoal drawings beautifully evoke Matisse’s fluidity of line, his decorative treatment of nature and the female form, and his spatially compressed compositions. Indeed, with her sinuous curves and lithe configuration, the voluptuously rendered nude in Drawing for Great American Nude #21 is deeply reminiscent of Matisse’s own Large Reclining Nude of 1935.
At once a product and celebration of its time, Wesselmann’s series of Great American Nudes is driven by the language of consumerism. Conjuring the iconography, visual vocabulary, and amplified scale of billboard advertisements, the works in this cycle speak to an image saturated era of rising commercialism in America. Compelled by the reductive forms and instantaneous decipherability of advertising, in an age where sexuality was increasingly being used to sell commercial products, Wesselmann developed a unique pictorial syntax for his nudes comprising soft curving lines and simplified anatomical shapes. In such a way, his Great American Nudes seamlessly integrate the traditional motif of the classic odalisque, as exemplified by artists such as Titian and Ingres, with a thoroughly contemporary American visual culture of pin-up girls and erotica. The billowing ‘Old Glory’ flag in the present composition seems to denote a sense of old-time value and prestige which becomes humorously undercut by the brazen, open pose of the female nude.
One of the leading proponents of the Pop art movement, Wesselmann sought to convey the excitement and evolutions of the modern day through a return to figurative art. Working in stark contrast to the New York School of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, Wesselmann struck out against the emotive and gestural abstraction that had come to define ‘authenticity’ for that generation. In a decisive break with Abstract Expressionism, Wesselmann looked not to inner-emotion and sentiment as a source of inspiration, but rather to the visual, fast paced and dazzling world around him. As the eminent gallerist and author Ivan Karp recalls, “Basically there was a sense of wonderment, that was the permeating sensibility of this development. Exuberance and wonderment, the world outside of the self, not the world inside the self… No angst, none of that stuff, no inward looking, no inward revelations” (Ivan Karp in conversation with Maureen Bray and Robert Pincus-Witten in: Exh. Cat., New York, L&M Arts, Tom Wesselmann: The Sixties, 2006, n.p.). An expression of pure joie de vivre, Drawing for Great American Nude #21 encapsulates the very spirit of the era in which Wesselmann was working.
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