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Great American Nude #34
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Great American Nude #34
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About the item

An exquisite archetype of the artist’s most esteemed corpus, Great American Nude #34 from 1962 is a triumph of Tom Wesselmann's signature series, which was begun in 1961 almost simultaneously with Roy Lichtenstein's experiments in comic strip imagery and Warhol's first appropriations of current events and commercial products. Prototypical and seminal Pop Art, the Great American Nude series achieved the ultimate Americanisation of the paradigmatic European nude genre, articulating a powerful coalescence of classical odalisque and American popular imagery. Conflating the sinuous contours and decorative simplification of Matisse’s modernism with the graphic impact and erotic charge of contemporary visual culture, the female subject of Great American Nude #34 announces herself as the avant-garde inheritor of a tradition reaching back to the goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon.\n\nInitiated in 1961 with Great American Nude #1 and culminating in 1973 with Great American Nude #100, examples from this iconic series reside in the most prestigious American museum collections: Great American Nude #2 (1961) belongs to The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Great American Nude #3 (1961) and Great American Nude #4 (1961) are each owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., alongside Great American Nude #20 (1961) and Great American Nude #59 (1965); and Great American Nude #57 (1964) belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. Tom Wesselmann felt Great American Nude #1 (1961) was too important to sell, and the painting now resides in the collection of his wife and muse Claire Wesselmann. Replete with bold and vital symbols of Americana, diverse art historical allusions, an impactful composition and striking central figure, Great American Nude #34 incontrovertibly ranks among these museum-quality examples, epitomising the very best of Wesselmann’s emblematic series.\n\nPerched on the left elbow of the figure, a gently rocking mechanised parakeet constitutes Wesselmann’s first incorporation of a moving element into a canvas from this series. The composition is further distinguished by its figure: whereas many Great American Nude paintings - particularly the earliest ones - exhibit physiques with abstract, wavering, and loosely delineated contours, the subject of Great American Nude #34 evinces a notable attractiveness and completeness. Her zaftig yet trim hourglass figure is displayed to advantage in contrapposto, raised arms framing her head in an assured extravagance of self-display. Reflecting on the nudes of this series, Tom Wesselmann wrote that an “underlying interest in the erotic” was what “caused the conflict between abstraction and realism to be resolved in favor of more realism” (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 23). Embodying this preference, the present figure mimics the body language of confident availability employed in contemporary advertising and is among the most alluring of the entire series.\n\nWith a level of ambition and mastery unique among Pop artists, Wesselmann hybridised contemporary American visual culture with canonical artistic precedents. Wesselmann candidly acknowledged that despite his passion for Abstract Expressionism, and particularly Willem de Kooning’s corpus, academic painting was central to 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 paintings, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still-lifes, landscapes, interiors, etc.” (the artist quoted in: Marc Livingstone, ‘Tom Wesselmann: Telling It like It is’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Tom Wesselmann, A Retrospective survey 1962-1992, 1993, p. 21). Great American Nude #34 deftly synthesises each of these unique genres into one meta-traditional canvas by incorporating a luxuriant female, an eccentric collage still-life on the side-table, a domestic interior, and a hint of verdant landscape through the window in a single composition.\n\nWesselmann’s concern to Americanise and update seminal art historical renderings of the nude required grappling with the monolithic French tradition: Ingres, Rousseau, Modigliani, and Matisse. The Abstract Expressionists had moved the capital of painting from Paris to New York; in order to supersede their style and revivify representational art, Wesselmann was forced to look backward past his heroes Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock to France. The entire Great American Nude series reproduces the patriotic conjunction of a woman with a flag, epitomised by Eugene Delacroix’s personification of Liberty Leading the People (1830). While the abridged array of red, white, and blue stars and stripes unmistakably alludes to the American flag, it has also been suggested that by deconstructing the flag’s constituent elements Wesselmann was subtly referencing the French tricolor and by it, the Francophilia of art history. The present work reveals Wesselmann’s extensive study and masterful metamorphosis of these precedents.\n\nWrought from a smooth plane of evenly applied pigment, the figure in Great American Nude #34 speaks directly to French modernism, whose protagonists forgoed strict verisimilitude for an impressionistic and fetishised reduction. Of particular relevance is Henri Matisse’s Nude With Palms (1936) in the Barnes Collection, Philadelphia: both evoke an anonymous and idealised form exhibiting what Wesselmann called “erotic simplification,” whereby the complexities of a body are metonymically reduced to such erogenous features as nipples, mouths or genitalia (the artist quoted in: Johanna Burton, ‘Like a Rousseau Among the Cubists’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum, Pop Art: Contemporary Perspectives, 2007, p. 132). Wesselmann equally possesses Matisse’s panache for decorative regalia: in Nude With Palms, the red and white textile in the foreground and yellow striped wallpaper in the rear contend for visual dominance. Great American Nude #34 rivals this graphic impact, embodying Wesselmann’s view that “if all the positive and negative areas became as strong as possible… the image could become one strong positive shape” (Ibid., p. 20). Within the present work, Wesselmann aimed “to soak up the novelty and artifice of the movement of the bird” by incorporating multiple dazzling elements in full pageantry, including a film still, a Greek urn, a billowing flag, a frontal nude, and a nearly theatrical backdrop of unmixed primaries (Ibid., p.30).\n\nIn quest of visual impact, Wesselmann harnessed erotic imagery to accomplish a new type of assertiveness in art 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” (the artist quoted in: Marco Livingstone, Op. cit., p.23). Great American Nude #34 bears witness to the artist’s experimentation in this vein, evincing his conclusion that “a shaved vagina had the same vividness and immediacy as strong red”, particularly given the overwhelmingly demure nature of nudity in contemporary America, where any analogous photographic images were then illegal (Slim Stealingworth, Op. cit., p.23). Even by 1970, influential critic Peter Schjeldahl still found Wesselmann’s nudes to be “the most thoroughly and relentlessly ‘erotic’ in contemporary art” (Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Pop Goes the Playmate’s Sister’, The New York Times, 19 April 1970).\n\nDespite the legal strictures on such imagery, the fantasy of the Great American Nude series speaks directly to contemporary American life and public visual culture. Wesselmann’s figures are products of the American sexual revolution, associated with the legalisation of oral contraceptives, liberalising obscenity laws and the publication of the Kinsey reports on American sexual practices in 1948 and 1953. First lead by liberal counter-culture, this shift in mores immediately served commercial purposes: “For Wesselmann there was ample cultural evidence for presenting the Americanized nude as a highly commercialized, objectified, and sexualised female being, in short, as a secular muse for the affluent society” (David McCarthy, 'Tom Wesselmann and the Americanisation of the Nude, 1961-1963', Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 4, no. 3/4, 1990, p. 103). Following the 1953 publication of Playboy magazine, the “idea that sex was not merely an aspect of life but of a lifestyle, a badge of upward mobility and of material success” also became more widely accepted (Sidra Sitch in: Exhibition Catalogue, Berkeley, University Art Museum; Kansas City, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Made in USA: An Americanization in Modern Art: The 50s and 60s, 1987, p. 31). The female protagonists of Wesselmann’s contemporaries were equally rife with sex appeal: Pop masterpieces such as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe or Lichtenstein’s glamorous comic book heroines mimic an increasing erotic charge in popular culture, though never with the same potency as Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes.\n\nInitially trained at the prestigious Cooper Union in New York as a cartoonist, Wesselmann’s nudes archly parallel the Great American Novel or the American Dream, two foundational concepts in American culture. Wessemlann was among the earliest and key members of nascent Pop Art in New York, which responded to the unprecedented cohesion, wealth, and consumerism of late ‘fifties American culture. In 1958 Wesselmann co-founded the Judson Gallery alongside Jim Dine and devoted their first solo show to Claes Oldenberg, whose later Bunting from 1961 taps into a timeless aesthetic of national pageantry. By May 1962, Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #2 was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Recent Paintings: USA – The Figure, and in November he was featured in the Sidney Janis Gallery New Realists exhibition, the most seminal early Pop event which featured Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol (with his 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans) and Robert Indiana, among others, nearly all of whom drew on typical supermarket food products for imagery. In the earliest moments, he was thus crucially distinguished from his cohort given the bold erotic content of his paintings, such that he felt like a “Rousseau among the Cubists” (Slim Stealingworth, Op. cit, p.25).\n\nThe annals of early American political history constituted the background against which Wesselmann juxtaposed his novel female figures. Great American Nude #34 incorporates Gilbert Stuart’s 1813 portrait of American revolutionary hero Paul Revere, continuing the series’ inclusion of Presidents or Independence-era protagonists. Choosing figures with universal acclaim, which transcended 1960s political differences, Wesselmann tapped into a common foundation for American identity. The motif also undoubtedly reflected President Kennedy’s status as “the first great political superstar”, whereby “the country was inundated with visual images of its president, the contemporary equivalent of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington” (Sidra Sitch in: Op. cit., p. 36). Also in 1962, Roy Lichtenstein employed that very source material for his own painting George Washington.  For both artists, the staid and traditional style of Nineteenth Century painting acts as a foil to their novel aesthetics, whose finish - whether Benday or graphically geometric - is radically updated. Yet while Lichtenstein treats George Washington as yet another popular icon to be automatically translated into comic book vernacular, Wesselmann forges a direct link between his own revolutionary reconfiguration of the European canon and America’s historical defiance of European dominance.\n\nBy redacting the full fifty stars and thirteen stripes to four large stars and a passage of stripy wallpaper, Great American Nude #34 also visually gestures to historical permutations of the American flag, each signifying a new territorial expansion of the Union. In 1960 the flag underwent its most recent edit when a star was added for Hawaii. In 1966, the critic Gene Swenson astutely alluded to America’s historical frontier culture in his assessment of the series: “Wesselmann’s nudes are not really traditional, or if so they are less in the salon than in the saloon tradition” (quoted in: David McCarthy, Op. cit., p. 110). Referencing the bygone “saloon” days of the Wild West’s licentious and frontier-conquering aura of excitement, the curves of the present figure echo the receding hills in the sliver of green nature visible from the window, where the wind blows and causes the American flag to billow: this verdant scene contrasts with the domestic interior to imply that her body, like wilderness, is a landscape to be explored and conquered. Channelling the aura of America’s earliest territorial exploits by reference to its bygone national iconography, Wesselmann imparts his nudes with a feeling of freshness, visual expansion, and wild abandon.\n\nTo further challenge the strictures of easel painting, Wesselmann included diverse objects into his compositions. The parakeet in Great American Nude #34 represents the first attempt at movement, while Still Life #22 from the same year featured a playing radio, and the later Great American Nude #39 (1962) incorporated a working television set.  Wesselmann was aware of assemblagists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who he felt placed objects “in an abstract environment totally alien to the normal function and presence” of those things, whereas Wesselmann situated them in their “normal, literal” environments, “to intensify an image that could have been merely flat or painted” such that “they were not transformed but were simply heightened” (Slim Stealingworth, Op. cit., p.31). Whether objects or the magazine advertisements, printed movie stills, billboard and poster fragments that Wesselmann gathered and kept as a repository of imagery in his studio, the artist incorporated specific elements precisely because they spoke to the everyday world he inhabited. The film still in Great American Nude #34, for example, is from The Big Circus, a 1959 film starring Victor Mature - then a popular leading man - about a circus beset by sabotage. One wonders whether the choice bore any relation to his role in Claes Oldenberg’s 1961 happening Claes Oldenburg’s Circus, and the theatrical mayhem this circle of performance artists engendered. With his marriage of the real with the depicted, Wesselmann blurred the boundaries between the represented and its representation in a novel way. As Lucy Lippard has noted, “Wesselmann likes the ‘reverberations’ between painted and collaged images, art history and advertising, trompe-l’oeil and reality” (Lucy Lippard, Pop art, New York 1966, p. 112).\n\nThe curvilinear nude of the present work is a true American Original. Dazzlingly constructed of soft candy pink and fine black outlines, her cohesive and graceful mass presents a quiet contrast to the bold and geometric patterns, and collaged images, in her environment. Elements of European cultural history are acknowledged and at once superseded; utterly dominated by the contemporary symbols of American identity. A truly cosmopolitan construction, the vivacious and impactful relation between the figure of Great American Nude #34 and the eccentric components of her environment establishes the present work as among the very finest of its series ever created. Masterfully asserting Pop’s idiom over its immediate predecessor, Abstract Expressionism, Wesselmann proved that his methods could achieve an equally provocative, “aggressive” effect upon the viewer, using elements of everyday life in transcendent and powerful ways. Ultimately, Great American Nude #34 affirms Wesselmann as a foremost Pop artist, and a true inheritor of the once - but no longer - Europe-dominated artistic tradition. \nSigned and dated 62; signed, titled, variously inscribed and dated 62 on the reverse
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medium

Enamel, liquitex acrylic polymer, fabric, paper collage, and found objects on board

creator

Tom Wesselmann

condition

Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the flesh tones of the figure are slightly pinker in the original, and the illustration fails to convey the texture of the collaged elements. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals two small indentations to the urn which may be original and some surface inconsistencies inherent to the artist's choice of materials and method. No restoration is apparent under ultraviolet light. "In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."

dimensions

121.9 by 121.9cm.

exhibition

New York, L&M Gallery, Tom Wesselmann: The Sixties, 2006, pl. 5, illustrated in colour

literature

Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 30, illustrated in colour John Wilmerding, Tom Wesselmann, His Voice and Vision, New York 2008, p. 60, illustrated in colour

provenance

Green Gallery, New York Daniel Weitzman, New York Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 19 November 1981, Lot 68 Private Collection, USA Stoffel Collection, Cologne Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 13 May 2003, Lot 13, USA Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

signedDate

Signed and dated 62; signed, titled, variously inscribed and dated 62 on the reverse

consignmentDesignation

Property from an Important Private European Collection

creator_nationality_dates

1931 - 2004





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