Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)

Great American Nude #26

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Great American Nude #26
signed and dated 'Wesselmann 62' (near the center right edge); signed again, inscribed and dated again 'GAN 25 [sic] Wesselmann 62' (on the reverse)
oil, canvas collage, metallic foil paper and printed paper collage on board
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1962.
Green Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1964
J. Russell, "Persistent Pop," New York Times Magazine, 21 July 1974, p. 7 (illustrated).
American Pop Art, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974, p. 50, no 45 (illustrated).
Art About Art, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978, p. 87, pl. 11 (illustrated in color).
S. Stealingworth, Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 108 (illustrated in color).
D. McCarthy, "Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961-1963," Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 4, no. 4, Fall 1990, p. 106 (illustrated).
Tom Wesselmann: Recent Still Lifes and Landscapes, exh. cat., Tokyo, Galerie Tokoro, 1991, n.p. (illustrated).
Contemporary Great Masters: Tom Wesselmann, Tokyo, 1993, pp. 89 and 110, pl. 75 (illustrated in color).
L. Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twenthieth-Century Art Forms, New York and London, 2000, p. 59.
D. McCarthy, Pop Art, London, 2000, p. 51 (illustrated in color).
M. E. Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, Durham and London, 2006, p. 264.
M. Hand, The Passionate Collector: Robert B. Mayer’s Adventures in Art, Chicago, 2011, pp. 89 and 102 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated).
D. Horowitz, Consuming Pleasures: Intellectual and Popular Culture in the Postwar World, Philadelphia, 2012, p. 232.
New York, Green Gallery, Wesselmann: Collages/Great American Nude & Still Life, November-December 1962.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art; Los Angeles, University of California; Portland Art Museum, Art About Art, July 1978-April 1979, n.p., pl. 11 (illustrated in color).
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Beyond Pop: Tom Wesselmann, May 2012-July 2013, pp. 74 and 190, no. 30 (illustrated in color).


Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak


Tom Wesselmann’s dexterous conjoining of art history and consumer culture placed him at the forefront of a particularly exciting moment within postwar painting. Nowhere is this energy more felt than in works like Great American Nude No. 26 and the series from which it hails. Painting when abstraction was given life by a new generation of young artists, Wesselmann began to draw upon the images around him to inform a bold, titillating practice. As Henry Geldzahler observed: “I saw the works of Wesselmann... Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios (it was more or less July 1961). They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination...This is an instant history of art, a history of art that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself” (H. Geldzahler, in Arts Magazine, 1963, p. 37). Especially invigorated by the shifting, voluptuous forms of Henri Matisse, Wesselmann eschewed the almost clinical eye his Pop compatriots turned on the everyday in favor of colors and subjects that were at once recognizable and ideal.

Reclining across a blue ground that resembles a folded bedspread, a reclining pink nude outlined in brushy strokes of rose fills the center of the composition. Her right arm drapes languidly toward the bottom of the frame while the left is raised behind her head and bends at the elbow. The pose is typical of Wesselmann’s nudes from the series, but it also borrows from one of his greatest influences, Matisse. Specifically, the pose can be seen echoed in Matisse’s Pink Nude from 1935, now housed in the Baltimore Museum. One could chalk the similarities up to the universality of the relaxed pose, but Wesselmann’s painting shares a blue backdrop with the Matisse (although the latter employs a checked pattern) and also makes use of simple lines to render the woman’s body. Furthermore, in the upper left corner of Great American Nude No. 26, a reproduction of Matisse’s La Blouse Roumaine (1940) figures prominently behind the arch of the pink nude’s elbow. La Blouse Roumaine is referenced again later in Wesselmann’s career as a painted version appears in the aptly-named Sunset Nude with Matisse (2002). This direct reference to Matisse makes the similarities between Great American Nude No. 26 and Pink Nude all the more enticing and establishes a firm link between the two painters. Wesselmann’s debt to his forefather, and this painting in particular, is noted by David McCarthy for the Smithsonian American Art Museum when he writes, “By adopting the strong colors, crisp contours, and exotic imagery of Matisse, Wesselmann found another way around Abstract Expressionism while keeping his subject matter within a fully sanctioned fine art context. [Pink Nude] is a good example of the guidance Matisse could offer the young American painter. Where de Kooning appeared hot, sloppy, rough, and aggressive in his handling of paint, Matisse seemed cool, controlled, and smooth by comparison. Moreover, Matisse, whose critical reputation with vanguard artists and critics was remarkably high in the fifties and early sixties, provided a means for reconciling the abstraction of modernism with the desire many younger painters felt for harder-edged figuration combined with bold, flat coloring” (D. McCarthy, “Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961-1963, Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, 1990, p. 110). Coinciding with a 1961 exhibition titled The Last Works of Henri Matisse: Large Cut Gouaches, the beginning of Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series marked a lifelong study of the traditional subject of the female nude through a lens that was decidedly American but nevertheless informed by the European history of the subject.

The Great American Nudes started as collages in the late 1950s and gradually became realized in larger compositions as Wesselmann’s painting practice matured. Great American Nude No. 26 pays homage to these beginnings with a mixture of painted and found imagery. A six-pack of Coca-Cola bottles alongside two bottles of alcohol, a cat, a man’s black hat, and a cake are all cut from various sources while the poster of Matisse’s La Blouse Roumaine is also affixed to the canvas with a strip of metallic material meant to evoke a picture frame. According to the critic Lucy Lippard, “Wesselmann likes the reverberations between painted and collaged images, art history and advertising, trompe-l’oeil and reality’’ (L. Lippard, Pop Art, New York, 1967, p. 112). This mixture of materials situated Wesselmann’s practice firmly in the realm of Pop art, but his interest in the figures themselves over the consumerist accoutrements set him apart from his colleagues.

Wesselmann’s affinity for Matisse appears throughout his career, and the artist was never hesitant to sing the late Fauve’s praises. Completing his studies at Cooper Union in 1959, Wesselmann was immediately confronted with the raging Abstract Expressionist movement, and none more so than Willem de Kooning and his Women series of the early 1950s. Wesselmann wrote, “I think Matisse comes in right around the time of graduation from art school. I’d acquired some little cheap book of his reproductions. I’d seen a few here and there before. Obviously, I must have. I just didn’t remember them. But having a book in my hand, I got a look at them and they were meaningful to me. I was struck by various aspects of them. I didn’t have too much to say about it, except that I was awed by him as I was by de Kooning. I can sort of look back at whom I was awed by just by saying ‘Matisse and de Kooning.’ What got me about Matisse and put me on my guard at the same time was how very stunningly beautiful his paintings were. They were exciting. You couldn’t look at a Matisse without feeling some kind of excitement, you just couldn’t do it” (T. Wesselmann quoted in J. Sturges, G. Stavitsky, & A. Goldstein, “Reinventing the Nude,” Gagosian Quarterly, New York, Summer 2017). The dichotomy of Matisse versus de Kooning would rear up in Wesselmann’s practice throughout his life, and his indebtedness to both is palpable.

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