Influenced like many of his contemporaries by the vibrant visual language of popular culture of the time, Wesselmann established a wholly original stylistic interplay of vividly collaged commercial images, elevating the Americanised reproduction of mass media to the realm of high art. In combination with the artist’s deliberate choice of American imagery, he drew significant thematic and stylistic inspiration from great Modernist painters such as Renoir, Picasso and first and foremost Matisse. His lifelong fascination with the great odalisques of art history first materialised in his iconic series The Great American Nude from the 1960s. Placing his seductively reclining pink nudes within collaged settings of scraps of popular advertising and stereotypical suburban interiors, Wesselmann began to establish his unique interpretation of what is arguably the most classical subject in art, the female nude. Despite his obvious alliance with the emerging Pop Art movement, Wesselmann underscored the conventional origins of his works, explaining: “I felt rather old fashioned because I felt that I came so definitely out of a European tradition.” (Interview with Tom Wesselmann conducted 1984 by Irving Sandler for the Archives of American Art)
Even though the latter half of his career was shaped by a stylistic move toward abstraction, Wesselmann never fully dismissed the figurative subject, reworking his iconic female imagery of the Great American Nudes into a simpler, more refined visualisation in his series of Sunset Nudes. For the artist, “there’s no question that the nudes of women are more exciting as subjects than anything else.” (Interview with Tom Wesselmann conducted 1984 by Irving Sandler for the Archives of American Art) In what can be described as an ‘organic evolution’, Wesselmann reinvented his preferred theme, employing the familiar compositional device of an alluringly reclining female framed within a landscape of abstracted shapes and surrounded by his distinct imageries of flower bouquets and female paraphernalia.
In the present work the subtle sensuality of the female form is overpowered by a bold colour theme and stark dynamic outlines, underlining the artist's new visual focus of an abstracted language. The sensuality of the nude is diluted through the anonymity of the figure, which is left faceless, alluding to the familiar quest for the unattainable women. The erotic simplification of the nude is highlighted in the prominence of her glossy lips and red nipples as central features, whilst the vibrant fields of colour help accentuate the compositional structure of the painting, arranging the figure in a series of interweaving lines and shapes.
Sunset Nude (Squared Off) is an elegant demonstration of Wesselmann’s astounding artistic development and exemplifies his unique deconstruction of the classical notion of the female nude. It is a striking and stylised homage to his exploration of the balance between abstraction and figuration and can be seen as a magnificent completion of his extraordinary creative achievements.
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