An exquisite archetype of the artist's most esteemed corpus, the 'Great American Nude' series, the present work invokes a powerful coalescence of classical odalisque and American Pop imagery. Commanding in scale, its vibrancy and eroticism testify to Wesselmann's remarkable artistic invention, which engendered some of the most emblematic Pop creations. Acquired by Gunter Sachs in 1969, Great American Nude #51 was honoured as a centrepiece of his iconic St. Moritz apartment. Meticulously curated by Sachs to display Pop, Surrealist and New Realist art alongside exquisite selections of furniture and decorative pieces, the St. Moritz apartment was unquestionably Sachs' Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Hanging directly over his custom-made Jean-Claude Farhi dining table, Great American Nude #51 was the backdrop for this intimate social space. With pleasing synchronicity, its nude has been described thus: "laid out across the expanse of the canvas, as though on a tray or platter, she is the centrepiece, the entrée of an abundant meal" (David McCarthy, 'Tom Wesselmann and the Americanisation of the Nude, 1961-1963', Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, 1990, p. 104).
Initiated in 1961 with Great American Nude #1 and culminating in 1973 with Great American Nude #100, this iconic series reached its mature phase during the summer of 1963. Then, Wesselmann dramatically and unexpectedly enlarged his canvases and substituted an often painterly brushstroke with a harder, more plastic finish. His women were also now boldly depicted with pubic hair, although nudity remained overwhelmingly demure in American imagery, including men's magazines like Playboy. 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" (the artist 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.23). As such, he deliberately avoided the coquetry of pinup girls, favouring poses that challenged normative comfort zones. Wesselmann cited Henry Miller's steamy autobiographic novels Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer, the latter of which was subject to American obscenity trials from 1961 to 1964, as a profound and formative influence upon his visualisation of tensely erotic content.
Trained at the prestigious Cooper Union in New York as a gag cartoonist, Wesselmann's nudes cheekily recall the Great American Novel or the great American Dream with parodic levity. Yet caricature always feeds off of something more profound: for Wesselmann it was 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 quintessentially Pop fashion, the Great American Nudes touch upon these issues with specific reference to advertising's visual idioms. "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', op.cit., p. 103). In the appropriative tradition of Dada, Wesselmann collaged images from billboards into paintings, obtained by telephoning companies who obligingly sent him their gigantic advertisements. In the case of Great American Nude #51, the vacuous Miss America boasts a photographic extraction of lusciously red lips and smiling white teeth, like the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat. The alpine forests and landscape of Lake Tahoe seen beyond her window similarly bespeak kitschy travel agency adverts, contrasting with the domestic interior to imply that her body, like wilderness, is a landscape to be explored and conquered.
With a level of ambition and mastery unique among Pop artists, Wesselmann hybridised contemporary American visual culture with canonical artistic precedents. Wesselmann candidly acknowledged the centrality of academic painting 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 in: Marc Livingstone, 'Tom Wesselmann: Telling It like It is', op.cit., p. 21). Great American Nude #51 deftly synthesises each of these unique genres into one meta-traditional canvas. Therein, the perverse Ingrism of his nubile figure is accessorised by the enormous round fruits and suggestively rendered flowers, invoking centuries-old symbolic conventions. In his own words, Wesselmann was "a Rousseau among the cubists" (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.128). Considering Rousseau's paradigmatic work The Dream (1910), which surrealistically conflates the domestic and the exotic, the analogy is apt.
An intriguing irony addressed within the Great American Nudes series is that historical circumstance pushed patriotic American artists to grapple with the French tradition. The Abstract Expressionists had moved the capital of painting from Paris to New York; in order to supersede their style and resurrect representational art, Wesselmann was forced to look backward past Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock to France. Great American Nude #51 therefore reproduces the patriotic conjunction of a woman with a flag, as visible for example in Henry Peters Gray's The Birth of our Flag (1875) or Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), while cheekily skirting the flag's actual depiction. As in the present work, non-specific constructions of stars and stripes in red, white and blue materialise instead, suggesting a French flag naughtily disguised in new shapes in lieu of the genuine article.
Dazzlingly constructed and impressively monumental in scale, Great American Nude #51 is an artistic triumph and a true American Original. Gunter Sachs paid special homage to this inspirational piece with the photograph Homage à Wesselmann. Sachs' image is Wesselmann's dream made real; a celebration of progressive social mores and the artist's jubilant revelry in the female body.
Oil and collage on canvas, in three parts
New York, Green Gallery, Tom Wesselmann, 1964
Minneapolis, Dayton's Gallery 12; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Lincoln, MA, De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Tom Wesselmann, 1968
Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Gunter Sachs - Retrospektive, 2003, n.p., illustrated in colour
New York, L&M Arts, Tom Wesselmann: The Sixties, 2006
Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Gunter Sachs, 2008, pp. 64-65, illustrated in colour
Each: 304.8 by 122. 120 by 48in. Overall: 304.8 by 366cm. 120 by 144in.
Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York 1980, p. 140, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Moscow, Museum Tsaritsyno, Gunter Sachs, 2009, n.p., illustrated in colour
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Acquired directly from the above in 1969