"I am interested in assembling a situation resembling painting, rather than painting." –Tom Wesselmann
Great American Nude No. 48 is prototypical and seminal Pop art. Combining classical odalisque imagery and the contemporary artifice of popular culture, Wesselmann's Great American Nude series is an iconic paradigm of assemblage art. Contrary to easel painting or carved sculpture, where individual gesture or imagery function in relation to a representational or abstract whole, an assemblage is composed of heterogeneous elements whose significance is particular to the artist or the viewer. (Nicolas Calas, Icons and Images from the Sixties, New York, 1971, p. 21) Traceable to Cubist and Dadaist collages, and to such famed works as Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), assemblage elements retain autonomy from their structural functionality. In Great American Nude No. 48, Wesselmann's functional shift from an emphasis on compositional integrity towards a personalized reading of the artwork is accentuated by imagery embedded within a historical framework.
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) Wesselmann's wide range of historical referents include Flemish masters like Van Eyck and Van Der Goes whose respective work is explicitly alluded to in Great American Nude No. 48 by the four-piece still-life lined up on the window sill and by the bouquet of tulips centered on the wooden table. Likewise, Matisse's decorative treatment of nature and compressed spatial compositions are evoked by the reproduction of one of his paintings, dated 1948 which refers back to the number that identifies Great American Nude No. 48. In addition to pictorial references, the historical underpinnings of the female nude are evident. The explicit realism of a woman's unshaven nudity has a long tradition in the history of Western painting. Presumably originating with Goya's La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja), executed between 1797 and 1800; the Realist portrayal of a female nude was then reintroduced by Gustave Courbet's Woman with a Parrot of 1866; and subsequently eroticized as a passive creature in the perplexing narratives of Surrealism as in the Belgian Paul Delvaux's Nude with the Mannequin (1947).
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." (Ibid., p. 23) One must remember that in the early 1960s, nudity remained overwhelmingly demure in common American imagery. Within this cultural framework, 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 (whom he married the year of this painting) 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)
Wesselmann's dialogue with the art of his contemporaries is particularly evident with the work of George Segal. Segal's combination of plaster casts and real objects to form an environment has been interpreted as "more real than the 'real' objects which surround them," (Phyllis Tuchman, ``George Segal'', Art International, September 1968). In a different manner, Wesselmann juxtaposes a variety of painted images and physical objects. "A painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple wasn't enough for me," he noted. "They were both the same kind of thing. But if one is from a cigarette ad and the other a painted apple, they are two different things and they trade on each other; lots of things—bright strong colors, the qualities of materials, images from art history or advertising—trade on each other." (Interview with G. R. Swenson, Art News, February 1964) Wesselmann also focused more on popular icons such as billboards, television, and film, while Segal instead explored the psychological relationships between people and their environments through frozen real-life tableaux. While both artists share an affinity for private spaces, boudoir and toilette themes, once these spaces are inhabited by female nudes, Segal's environments become introspective, as opposed to Wesselmann's extroverted scenes.
Although "Wesselmann's process is essentially intuitive, not an intellectual one; he proceeds from the visual evidence, not from theory," and his work was guided by a tight formal structure. (Op. cit., Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, p. 25) In the Great American Nude series, he expands his surface-based collages to include three-dimensional objects usually found in middle-class American households—towel holders, clocks, kitchen shelves or fans—into his compositions. Yet, in spite of the inclusion of phones, chairs, and cigarettes, Wesselmann's works are not meant to be participatory. Great American Nude No.48 was conceived as a painting, and it was Wesselmann's objective that it would stay as such. Under the pen-name Slim Stealingworth, in a self-titled monograph, the artist wrote: "In all of my dimensional work I use the third dimension to intensify the two-dimensional experience. It becomes part of a vivid two-dimensional image. The third dimension, while actually existing, is only an illusion in terms of the painting, which remains my intent in a painting and not a sculptural context." (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 34-37)
Sam Hunter notes that the title for The Great American Nude 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." (Op. cit. Sam Hunter, p. 18) A summary of many devices, and a true American original, Great American Nude No. 48 is one of Wesselmann's most complex pieces.
Oil and collage on canvas, acrylic and collage on board, enameled radiator and assemblage (including window illumination)
New York, Green Gallery, Recent Work, 1963
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Gallery, Mixed Media and Pop Art, November - December 1963, cat. no. 78
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Amerikansk Pop-Konst, February - April 1964, p. 103, illustrated
London, Hayward Gallery, Pop Art, July - September 1969
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs - Amerikanische und europäische Kunst der sechziger Jahre, November 1983 - April 1984, cat. nos. 414, p. 79, illustrated in color
Tübingen, Institut für Kulturaustausch; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Berlin, Altes Museum; Munich, Museum Villa Stuck; Rotterdam, Kunsthall Rotterdam; Speyer, Historisches Museum der Pflaz; Madrid, Fundaciòn Juan March; Barcelona, Fundaciòn Caixa de Cataluna; London, Barbican Art Center; Nice, Musée d'Art Moderne; Lisbon, Gestao de Espacos Culturais, Tom Wesselmann, April 1994 - November 1996, cat. no. 18, illustrated in color
Krefeld, Haus Lange, Werke der Pop Art aus der Sammlung Lauffs, March - August 2002, p. 15, illustrated in color
Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Tom Wesselmann, June - September 2005, p. 57, illustrated in color
84 x 106 3/4 x 40 1/2 in. 213.3 x 271.1 x 102.8 cm.
John Rublowsky, Pop Art, New York, 1965, n.p., illustrated in color
Nicolas Calas and Elena Calas, Icons and Images of the Sixties, New York, 1971, p. 124, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center (and traveling), George Segal: Sculptures, 1978, p. 66, illustrated
Slim Stealingworth, Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 36, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art (and traveling), Tom Wesselmann: A Retrospective Survey 1969 - 1992, 1993, p. 16, illustrated
Contemporary Great Masters, Tom Wesselmann, Tokyo, 1993, pl. no. 76, p. 90, illustrated in color
Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, pl. 42, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Venezia, Flora Bigai Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (and traveling), Tom Wesselmann, 2003, p. 10, illustrated
Green Gallery, New York
Dayton's Gallery 12, Minneapolis
Onnasch Galerie, Berlin
Acquired by the present owner from the above in April 1971