A seminal figure in the Pop Art movement, Tom Wesselmann did not, at first, know he wanted to be an artist. As he wrote under his pseudonym, Slim Stealingworth, “his adolescent ambition [was] to run a sporting–goods store and thus extend his interest in sports and fishing" (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 25). Luckily for the world, Wesselmann discovered his artistic penchant after being drafted for the war.
Wesselmann candidly acknowledged the role of historical models in his work: "When I made the decision in 1959 that I was not going to be an abstract painter; that I was going to be a representational painter...I only got started by doing the opposite of everything I loved. And in choosing representational painting, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still-lifes, landscapes, interiors, portraits, etc..." (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. 21). The historical underpinnings of the female nude are evident, as is the male gaze. Drawing inspiration from past masters of the odalisque - Courbet, Manet and Matisse, by 1984 Wesselmann had perfected his craft. The most subtle detail of the work, the subject’s bright pearl earring can be seen as a direct reference to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
From 1965-1966, Wesselmann worked on a series of drawings and studies of his wife, Claire, whom he had met at the Cooper Union in 1957, on the beach. The beach studies did not fit with the current body of work Wesselmann was perfecting in the mid-60s, so he set them aside. Wesselmann returned to the series 18 years later – the title, 18 Year Old on the Beach, refers to the fact that Wesselmann returned to the subject 18 years later at initially starting – not that Claire was 18 years old at the time of the painting.
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" (ibid., p. 23). Even in the 1980s, nudity remained overwhelmingly demure in common American imagery. Within this cultural framework, the erotically charged poses in the present work and in the Great American Nude series convey much more than Wesselmann's claim that they were merely observations of Claire. 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).
Known for his Great American Nude Series, Wesselmann was nothing short of prolific. The present work, finished during a transitional period in the artist’s oeuvre, is representative of where Wesselmann came from and where he was going. 18 Year Old on the Beach is the nexus of Wesselmann’s collaging of the past and the sharp edges a preview of his laser-cut outs. In both aspects, the influence of Matisse's work on Wesselmann is unmistakable from the reclining nude and use of bright colors to the cut-out like lines of shapes of figure - as Wesselmann himself remarked, “ I can’t talk about Matisse without talking about myself” (the artist from an interview with Jean-Claude Lebensztejn). Unlike in Matisse’s works, however, Wesselmann’s works present an almost mechanical flatness which nearly renders the nude figure abstract. 18 Year Old on the Beach embodies the most beloved themes of Wesselmann's career: the reclining nude, the bright colors and the collage-like technique.
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