That year, a professional illustrator, a sign painter, a college professor and a former Army cartoonist named Tom Wesselmann would each have gallery exhibitions in New York City that, collectively, would mark the beginning of Pop art. It was Tom Wesselman’s epic Great American Nude series that would launch both his artistic career and establish his place as one of the founding members of the movement.
The dawn of the decade had presented many artists with the choice of either continuing the Abstract Expressionists' practice, whose continued isolation from contemporary culture would ultimately lead to the movement’s undoing, or invent a new visual language that, as Robert Rauschenberg argued for in 1959, merged art and life. Undoubtedly the commercial backgrounds of many Pop artists swayed their decision in favor of the latter and, as Andy Warhol explained, their intent was to look at “all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” (Andy Warhol, ‘POPism: The Warhol Sixties,’ Harper & Row, New York, 1983, p. 3).
With his Great American Nude series, perhaps more so than any other Pop artist, Wesselmann successfully merged the modernist sensibilities of the nascent movement into a cohesive whole. A satiric take on The Great American Novel and The Great American Dream, Wesselmann’s title for the series was intended to foreclose unintended interpretation of the images and manifest the same sly wit that marked his comic strips. With each piece, he sought to generate the same visceral drama and powerful confrontation found in the greatest Abstract Expressionist works, but with a visual logic predicated on American contemporary visual culture. Wesselmann’s nudes, still-lifes, and landscapes would revitalize these traditional motifs of Western painting through modernist idioms while simultaneously acknowledging this artistic lineage.
As exemplified in Great American Nude #24, Wesselmann snatched objects from readily available American mass media to create all-over compositions that rejected illusionistic space and harnessed the imbrication of objects against a background, which had been integral to modernism. Unlike other collagists such as British artist Richard Hamilton, Wesselmann did not attempt to recreate a three-dimensional space. Indeed, the goods in Great American Nude #24 appear to be resting on the surface of the canvas and threaten to fall to the spectator’s feet. The collage of items, a strawberry sundae, a picture of George Washington in a frame, flowers, and other images extracted from glossy magazines, do not recede into space but draw the spectator’s gaze upwards towards the flat color field of the female nude. Wesselman incorporated cloth and other materials into the composition that have an inherent tangible depth, but paradoxically increase the vertical flatness of the image and anticipate his later work boldly composed of physical objects rather than their simulacra or mass media representations. The composition is framed with all-American silver stars and a view of "beautiful for spacious skies."
With this nude, composed of an array of sensual two-dimensional positive and negative spaces, likely shaped by scissors as was his practice, Wesselmann showed little interest in mimesis. The sequence of organic curves that cascades across the space describes the female form with a minimum of elaboration and, subtly signifies her eroticism. It is only the heavily modeled lips that confirm the viewer’s suspicion about the figure’s identity. Indeed, according to Wesselmann, facial features would imbue the figure with a personality and detract from his carefully constructed visual arrangement, and thus her visage is reduced to a carnal mouth. Compositionally, the large field of skin tone appears, like Klimt’s Danaë, to both emerge from the background and to be engulfed by it.
Over the course of his career, no motif would become more closely associated with Wesselmann’s work than the female nude. It was a strategy used to address his own sexual preoccupations and for replicating the confrontational power found in de Kooning’s women, which he greatly admired. However, the importance of this strategy declined as the depictions became more explicit. Nevertheless, it was this increasing explicitness and the denied identity of the female figures that would serve to generate unintended controversy as the sexual revolution of the 1960s transitioned into second-wave feminism of the 1970s.
Ironically, Wesselmann frequently denied that his collages possessed iconographic or political content. “I used what was around me, so my culture was what I used. But I didn’t use it for cultural reasons, it was not a cultural comment.” (Thomas Buchsteiner and Otto Letze, ‘Tom Wesselmann,’ Distributed Art Pub Inc., 1996, p. 13). The selection and composition of goods was dictated by their formal visual qualities and ability to represent a particular reality. Because they obscured these formalistic intentions, later works would lack the dramatic use of brand names.
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