Progression of Art
Great American Nude #21
Wesselmann's earliest and best-known series positions a time-honored theme in juxtaposition with contemporary signs of consumer culture and politics. After a dream concerning the phrase "red, white, and blue", he decided to paint nudes in this patriotic palette, incorporating gold and khaki (colors with military overtones). This resulted in the series now known as the "Great American Nudes." Over-the-top patriotic decor introduces a comic element (the insistent red white and blue palette, star and stripe motifs on the wall, red curtain, and blue and white sheets. On the wall behind her is a portrait of the recently elected President John F. Kennedy (a magazine clipping). Wesselmann's then-girlfriend, later-wife Claire Selley modeled for this painting.
The vibrant color and stylized pose evoke Matisse, and the single facial feature, a toothy grin, is a direct reference to de Kooning, who famously pasted the mouths from cigarette ads onto his canvases of the 1950s. Her devil-may-care expression, juxtaposed with Kennedy's formal attire and earnest gaze, suggests that both are equally contrived. Cleverly arranged pairings between the private space of the bedroom and public sphere of contemporary politics are a hallmark of Wesselmann's oeuvre.
Casein, Enamel, Graphite, Printed Paper, Fabric, Linoleum and Embroidery on Board - Mugrabi Collection / Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Still Life #35
Though Wesselmann rejected the label of Pop art, this piece is an iconic work of the 1960s that fits squarely within the movement. Pop art consciously moved away from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, instead embracing cultural specificity. From just a glance, we know this is an image of mid-20th century America. Yet it also references traditional European still lifes that depicted commonplace objects - fruit, vegetables, or flowers - in a manner that highlighted their unique beauty. In this canvas, Royal Crown cola, factory-made white bread, canned stew, and a packet of cigarettes appear in brilliant colors on a table with a striped cloth. On the left, a window affords us a view of a commercial jet soaring over an emerald sea against a clear blue sky. Almost all of the goods are cheap, generic foods, manufactured and packaged with distinct branding and logos. Even the lemons, with their artificial hue, seem as though they could have been produced in a factory. A literal feast for the eyes, this painting allows us to indulge in the fantasy that all these things taste as good as they look.
Oil and Collage on Canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Smoker, 1 (Mouth, 12)
Wesselmann began his series of Mouth paintings in 1965. This large canvas depicts a monumental mouth with a cigarette dangling from the lower lip. A large trail of gray smoke wafts from the tip, and the full red lips contrasts sharply with the white teeth. The image is at once inviting, remote, and unsettling, and everything is too perfect to be real. In its focus on one part of the body, this enhances the element of fetishism present in Wesselmann's earlier work. He would continue this line of inquiry into the 1970s in both his Smoker Study and Seascapes series - in which a single body part, such as a foot or breast, is the primary focus of the composition.
Rather than representing a specific person or even imitating an advertisement, the disembodied mouth functions as a kind of fertility symbol for the modern age, and also as a kind of self-portrait. The disembodied mouth is unmistakably Wesselmann, a kind of visual calling card for the artist. In fact, Wesselmann's Mouth series almost certainly inspired one of the most iconic band logos of all time, The Rolling Stones cover for Sticky Fingers (designed in 1971 by the designer Ed Pasche, who would have been familiar with Wesselmann's work).
Oil on canvas, in two parts - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bedroom Painting #76
While he insisted there was no psychic depth to his art, Wesselmann's paintings work a slow magic on our senses. Associations between the landscape and the nude persist throughout Wesselmann's work. The golden curves of the nude rise from the nipple to the crown of the head like mountains in the sun; elements of blue decor in the background mimic sky. With the Bedroom Paintings, Wesselmann brings together elements of his Great American Nudes, Still Lifes and Seascapes series, shifting the scale and focus of objects surrounding a nude figure. Several striking compositions of the 1980s juxtapose painted material with real objects. The inclusion of a functional television in this work underscores the device's ubiquity in everyday life, not always watched but often running, and as much a part of the flow of everyday life as the staring cat and swooning mistress. He began the Bedroom Paintings in the late 1960s, and from 1978 onward they adhered to the diagonal structure seen here, with a woman's face in the foreground.
Oil on canvas on board, with functional television - Private Collection
Monica Sitting with Mondrian
This piece is one of several from the 1980s and 1990s that incorporated iconic paintings by other artists, including Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Matisse, juxtaposing Wesselmann's nudes with these famous earlier works. Made later in his career, they have a kind of retrospective quality that might be seen as part victory lap, part walk down memory lane in a reflective journey back to his roots as a student of modern art.
Here, a lithe and nubile model (Monica) is seated on a pink sofa (or bed) in front of an abstract painting by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, another of Wesselmann's idols. While sketchy in appearance the material is metal which has then been filled with paint. Wesselmann arrived at this technique with the help of the Lipincott Foundry in Pennsylvania, where he began to produce work made out of metal in the 1980s, which he referred to as aluminum doodles. "The idea was to take a small doodle and blow it up large, as if it had just been made on the wall," Wesselmann explained. Entitled the Steel Drawings series, these works inspired excitement and confusion when they made their debut. For instance, the curators at the Whitney wrote to ask why he had labeled these pieces drawings and not sculptures. His response was this was "an example of life not necessarily being as simple as one might wish,"and continued, "in the long run ...what it is will not matter. What matters, of course, is it is beautiful, a vivid expression of a valid idea, presented in a specific form that really has never been seen before." The laser-sharp edges of the gleaming, saturated color in these late works in metal brings home the overarching aim of Wesselmann's work: to revive idealized beauty for the age of advertising.
Enamel on steel - Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque
Painted the year before his death, this exuberant painting is a riot of bright, overlapping planes of color, and sums up Wesselmann's life-long ambition to paint an American nude that rivaled that of Matisse. In homage to his favorite early-20th-century artist, Wesselmann paints two women reclining in a classic pose favored by Matisse. The background figure, an obvious homage to the French master, closely mimics his odalisques of the 1920s in everything from the hairstyle to the minimal shading in brown against faintly modulated peach skin tones. The foreground figure is 100% Wesselmann, with its flat, unmodulated arc of yellow hair, tan to the point of orange, and sunlight bouncing off the skin like a racing stripe. The artist had been particularly moved by an exhibition of Matisse's work he saw at MoMA in 1960, and here he revisits both that early source of inspiration while incorporating many of the evolutions of his own technique. The image brings the viewer's attention to the ways in which standards of beauty have changed over the course of the century, and also serves as a reminder of the continuing relevance of modernist art in the postmodern era.
Oil on canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann