Unabashedly erotic, the Great American Nude #79 luxuriates languidly in her status as an undeniable object of beauty. A commanding and striking archetype from Tom Wesselmann’s iconic and seminal series of the Great American Nude, the present work is a confidently executed and powerful juxtaposition of art historical tradition and American Pop Art sensibility. Executed between 1961 and 1973, the Great American Nude series cemented Wesselmann’s position as one of the founding fathers of the Pop Art movement; many examples reside in prestigious museum collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. The early Great American Nude #79 is distinguished by its particularly alluring composition, serene aesthetic, and pristine provenance, having been held in just two private collections since its executin in 1966. In the present work, Wesselmann’s striking blonde bombshell is splayed seductively across the canvas, framed by icons of the artist’s famed still life compositions.
Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series seamlessly integrates the traditional motif of the classic odalisque with a contemporary American visual culture of eroticized pin-up girls. In stark contrast to the New York School of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Wesselmann struck out against the spontaneity and gestural abstraction that had come to define ‘authenticity’ for that generation. Wesselmann notes in his coolly detached autobiography authored by his alter ego Slim Stealingworth: “The challenge for an artist is always to find your own way of doing something. When I first was involved in painting at all, my envy of de Kooning, my admiration for de Kooning and those other painters, but especially de Kooning, becomes the symbol of all that… My envy was so intense that I literally couldn’t be an artist unless I could find some way to do it completely differently. I wanted to paint like de Kooning, but I couldn’t, because I wasn’t good enough, for one thing. It wasn’t my language. But I was so excited by the ideas of de Kooning that I was determined to find my own way of doing it, which is what I thought he had done with Picasso anyway. So I had to deal with de Kooning, as he had to deal with Picasso” (Slim Stealingworth (Tom Wesselmann), Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 25).
To break with Abstract Expressionism, Wesselmann instead turned his attention to the fantasy of the ‘Great American Dream’, a national ethos and foundational concept in American culture, which he parodied in his Great American Nude series. The 1960s saw a rise in popular mass media with an influx of modern marvels and creature comforts that stoked consumer desire. The accumulation of commodities was no longer merely a sign of success and power; rather it had become synonymous with the ‘Great American Dream’. Additionally, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which included the legalization of oral contraceptives, the publication of the Kinsey reports on sexual practices, and pin-up girls dominating the pages of men’s magazines such as Playboy, fueled the proliferation of seductive images in consumerist culture and advertising. With each piece from this remarkable series, Wesselmann sought to generate the same visceral drama of the greatest Abstract Expressionist works, but with a visual idiom that spoke both to American culture and traditional motifs of Western painting.
For Wesselmann, eroticism was an instrument to accomplish a new type of assertiveness without resorting to the gestural physicality exploited by the previous generation of painters. “Since I couldn’t use the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke any more – I had dropped that – I had to find other ways of making the painting, the image, aggressive” (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. 23). Within this cultural framework of the early 1960s, the erotically charged poses in the Great American Nude series convey much more than Wesselmann’s claim that they were merely observations of Claire – Wesselmann’s girlfriend and model for the compositions. While highly provocative to the general public, Wesselmann denied any intention of exploiting eroticism in his nude series. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to ignore the sources of these images in the nubile young women of contemporary advertising – most often blonde; yet it is also true that there is indefinable innocence and little to offend in most of his rather mechanical and impersonal nude women. (Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, p. 20).
Looking to the monolithic French tradition of Ingres, Rousseau, Modigliani and Matisse, Wesselmann achieved the ultimate Americanization of the paradigmatic European nude, articulating a powerful a coalescence of classical odalisque and American popular imagery. In the present work, Wesselmann has depicted the nude cropped close to the surface of the painting, pushing outward from the cobalt colored confines of her environment. She reclines languidly, her arms raised above her head, presenting herself as the object of our gaze. Sinuous lines delineate the contours of the sensuous figure, which Wesselmann has radically reduced to only a few basic elements. The lighter flesh tone of her breasts dissolves imperceptibly to the slightly darker candy pink of the body, barely the whisper of a bikini tan line. The exaggerated nipples and almost cartoon-like mouth – both rendered in the same coral tone – are the only signifiers suggesting her femininity, without which, the image of the body collapses into a mere abstraction of color. Although Wesselmann strips the woman of nearly all her facial features, effectively reducing her to the anonymous status of a mannequin or doll, he exaggerates the hallmarks of her sexuality in the parted lips, raised arms, and pert breasts. Anchoring the upper left hand corner of the painting, suggestively rendered flowers of vermillion and tangerine orange burst forth alongside a swollen golden fruit, the roundness and fecundity of which reflect the voluptuousness and sensuality of the nude. Wesselmann’s reduced color palette of strident, bold hues and flattened surface lend a harder, more plastic finish to the present work.
A summary of many devices, and a true American original, the Great American Nude #79 is prototypical American pop: eye-catching, bold, brassy and cool. Sam Hunter notes that the title for the series was an outgrowth of Wesselmann’s “gag-humor days when standard topics of parody were The Great American Novel and The Great American Dream. But the theme also captured something of the collective spirit of satire at a time of a newly dissenting avant-garde, and it connects the banal imagery of Pop Art to the empty, inflated Minimalist forms in that turbulent sixties era” (Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, p. 18). Following the Abstract Expressionists’ cementation of New York as the capital of the art world, Wesselmann resurrected a European tradition in painting through the ironic lens of a distinctly pop, object-obsessed, consumerist, American culture. Impressive in scale and brilliantly executed, Great American Nude #79 embodies a sensual art historical trope that would become and iconic leitmotif in the development of Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s.