Great American Nude #31 is a triumph of Tom Wesselmann's signature series and one of only two works featuring Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. 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, it held place of privilege among Gunter Sachs' remarkable collection, expressing his aesthetic appreciation of the female form. While Sachs photographed the first nude cover of French Vogue (1972), Wesselmann too pushed the envelope on erotic representation. In 1963 Great American Nude #21 was censored from an exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art for depicting a sensuously naked woman and President Kennedy side-by-side. Even into the freewheeling 1970s, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New York Times that Wesselmann's paintings "are the most thoroughly and relentlessly 'erotic' in contemporary art," and that his nudes – "pneumatic creatures" – are "a dumb bundle of erotic energy" (Peter Schjeldahl, 'Pop Goes the Playmate's Sister', The New York Times, 19th April 1970). In Wesselmann, Sachs saw a contemporary motivated by the same artistic drives and instincts, who furthermore masterfully conflated traditional genres of the still life, the nude, interiors and landscapes with the visual lexicon of contemporary America. As critic Gene Swenson concluded in 1966: "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, 'Tom Wesselmann and the Americanisation of the Nude, 1961-1963', Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, 1990, p. 110).
Wesselmann's concern to Americanise and update seminal art historical renderings of the nude required grappling with the monolithic French tradition: Ingres, Rousseau, Modigliani, Matisse. In the early 1960s faltering Franco-American relations politicised this imagery. Art was employed diplomatically, as in 1962 when French Minister of Culture André Malraux announced the loan of Leonardo Da Vinci's iconic painting La Giaconda, or the Mona Lisa, to be exhibited in the United States. The much-hyped exhibition in New York and Washington was a national cultural phenomenon. President Kennedy proclaimed at the Mona Lisa's unveiling that: "politics and art, the life of action and the life of thought, the world of events and the world of imagination, are one" (John F. Kennedy, 'Remarks at the National Gallery of Art Upon Opening the Mona Lisa Exhibition', The American Presidency Project Online Repository, 8th January 1963). His words resonated uncannily with Pop philosophy, which held that everyday images colonised and transformed the American psyche – "the life of thought." Epitomising this phenomenon, two million Americans visited the Mona Lisa, falling into "Mona mania" over hairstyles, souvenir items, and cocktails inspired by the painting. Andy Warhol responded with the 1963 work Mona Lisa (Coloured), where her visage neatly replaces Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor as the coyly unattainable seductress. Yet the features of a Marilyn painting that hint at tragedy – the garish makeup, the way her imprint fades with repetition, the rigid serial format emulating traumatic fixation – are discarded as the focus shifts from morbid celebrity to the free, unfettered exchange of an immortal cultural sign. Rather unusually for Warhol, the Mona Lisa thus morphs across the canvas, multiplying and magnifying, overlapping itself, rotating erratically and changing colours.
Wesselmann decisively addressed these issues by treating the hyper-iconic Mona Lisa as a popular artefact. In the Duchampian tradition of the readymade, he collaged a cheap poster reproduction of the masterpiece onto his canvas. Therein, Da Vinci's fine detail and rich palette of earth and aqua tones starkly and anachronistically contrast Wesselmann's graphic and vital swathes of pink, blue, red and white paint. In a manner paradigmatic of the series, the Old Master tradition serves as a foil for Wesselmann's popularisation and Americanisation of the nude. At the same time, more praising references to modern French artists like Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp are present, establishing Wesselmann as the true inheritor of their avant-garde innovation. Matisse's flat, decorative aesthetic permeates the series, and Great American Nude #31 particularly invokes The Pink Nude of 1935 via the horizontal arrangement of a fleshy pink figure against a roughly executed blue-and-white-check cloth. Equally significant is the recollection of Duchamp's own infamously ribald appropriation of the Mona Lisa. In 1919, he exhibited a postcard of the painting to which he added a moustache and goatee, signing and titling it L.H.O.O.Q., or sounded in French: "elle a chaud au cul" (she has a hot tail). This final association prompts the viewer to concretise all of the heady, phantasmal implications of Mona Lisa's smile, crudely alluded to by Duchamp, upon the receptively supple surface of Wesselmann's nude.
Like the Mona Lisa, Wesselmann's women are resolutely anonymous. Subject to the artist's process of "erotic simplification," they are fetishistically reduced to distinction by only nipples, mouths and blonde hair (the artist in: Johanna Burton, '"Like a Rousseau Among the Cubists": Tom Wesselmann's un-Pop Procedures' in: Exhibition Catalogue, Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum, Pop Art: Contemporary Perspectives, 2007, p.132). Sprawling languorously over a piece of red velvet collaged to the canvas, the curvilinear nude rests like a delicacy upon a pillow. Composed entirely of candy pink – a light tone for skin and a darker one for her nipples and lips – the lines of her body are sensuously realised in continuous Matissian lines. The glistening red cherries and apples upon the table, traditional symbols of sexual passion, intensify the nude's meaning. Cut from advertisements the artist saw in New York streets, subways, or billboards, they also contextualise the nude within the voyeuristic world of brand imagery. Wesselmann exaggerates, thereby exposing, these pictorial conventions in a fashion critic Brian O'Doherty called "wildly witty and madly hip" (Brian O'Doherty, 'Art: "Pop" Show by Tom Wesselmann is Revisited', The New York Times, 28th November 1962). Yet it would be improper to read the series as straightforward critique of post-war consumer culture. The artist has recounted how the Great American Nudes also express his joy at rediscovering sex following the dissolution of his first marriage. Often his soon-to-be next wife Claire modelled for these figures, imbuing them with personal significance despite their technical anonymity. The present work thus expresses painterly pleasure taken in the female form and inscribes the connections between passionate love and artistic creativity.
Oil and mixed media collage on board
New York, Green Gallery, Tom Wesselmann, 1962
Paris, Musee d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Passions Privée: Collections Particulières d'Art Moderne et Contemporain en France, 1995-96
Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Gunter Sachs - Retrospektive, 2003
152 by 122cm. 59 7/8 by 48in.
Gunter Sachs, Mein Leben, Munich 2005, p. 380, illustrated in colour
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich (acquired directly from the artist in 1962)
Acquired directly from the above in 1969