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Tom Wesselmann

Nude (for Sedfre), 1969
Screenprint

23” x 29”
Signed artist’s proof, edition of 100
Chiron Press, NY

Museum purchase, 1974

 

 “The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art.”

~Tom Wesselmann 

 

Similar to his Pop art colleagues Andy Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s entrees into the art world as advertising and cartoon artists, respectively, Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004) likewise came into his own as a painter through a brief stint as a cartoonist. Wesselmann is best known for his stylized paintings, assemblages and sculptures known as the Great American Nude series, which comprise a total of 100 artworks produced between the years 1961–1973.

At a time when the art world was still heavily influenced by the cerebral realm of Abstract Expressionism, Wesselmann, more than any of the other Pop artists, turned to the human form as his main focus of inspiration. Though he started by painting nude female bodies in full in the early 60s, he eventually narrowed his gaze to close-ups of appendages, isolating his models’ bodies down, for example, to single breasts, mouths, and feet. While Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes speak back to the traditions of the odalisques of modernist painters like Matisse, Modigliani and Gauguin, they are much flatter, lack any vestiges of individuality, and appear more like mass-produced objects than they do people (reminiscent of the style Matisse turned to in the final years of his life).

A good example of Wesselmann’s overall style is seen in his 1969 screenprint Nude (for Sedfre), which presents the viewer with an overly-stylized image of a blond woman possibly seen through the eyes of her partner lying next to her in bed in post-coital repose, cigarette just lit, lips rouged, nipples still erect. But wait! Where are her eyes and nose? How can she be staring back at us? Are we even looking at her face? Her mouth and breasts look willing, but she seems no more dimensional than the waft of gray cigarette smoke emanating from the ashtray atop the bedside table. Indeed, one might say she has less dimension than the light-reflecting maroon ashtray and unpeeled orange resting on the table.

As is the case with two other Pop prints held in the WFMA’s permanent collection—Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (1967) and James Rosenquist’s Marilyn (1974)—Nude (for Sedfre) has stripped bare the weight of art history’s symbolism of the female form by presenting its model as a mere fragment depicted in colors devoid of romantic sentiment and naturalism. None of these prints present their subjects as whole beings: Wesselmann’s has no facial features, save her mouth; Warhol’s presents a blue-faced close-up headshot of a bright orange haired Marilyn Monroe; while Rosenquist’s Marilyn is a chopped and quartered mishmash of rearranged facial parts. All three women are depicted with an air-brushed-like smoothness and lack of depth.  

Wesselmann, in his autobiography penned under the nom de plume of Slim Stealingworth, says of his work in general: "The attempt is primarily to utilize his stylistic simplifications and combine them with some suggestions of realism—to make an exciting art form with each visually intense object, in its own plane, competing with and adding to the other objects. That elements are flat, with implied dimensions, existing in full space, creates a strangely compelling visual experience of genuine tension. The tension is provided especially by the images trying to be flat and dimensional at the same time" (61).

This tension, whether between the bodies and the other objects within the artworks themselves, or between the artwork and its viewers, strips bare the long tradition of the sensual and metaphorical reclining nude, while at the same time somehow still inviting us into the private world of passion and eroticism—not through fleshiness, warmth and interpersonal connectivity, but rather through the symbolic visual rhetoric of advertising . Wesselmann’s nudes are inviting yet distantly dimensionless; exposed yet untouchable; human yet faceless. They are, however you slice it, important contributions to post-World War II American art and the WFMA’s permanent collection.

 


Works Consulted

Baro, Gene. 30 Years of American Printmaking. The Brooklyn Museum, 1997.

“Biography.” Tom Wesselmann Estate, tomwesselmannestate.org/about/biography/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2020.

Stealingworth, Slim. Wesselmann. Abbeville Press, 1980.

Watrous, James. American Printmaking: A Century of American Printmaking, 1880-1980. U of Wisconsin Press, 1984.


Nude (for Sedfre) from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

 
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