Description: PROPERTY FROM THE VANTHOURNOUT COLLECTION
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GREAT AMERICAN NUDE #96
36 x 50 in. 91.4 x 127 cm.
signed and dated 67; signed, titled GAN #96 and dated 1967 on the stretcher
oil and liquitex on canvas
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
William Zierler Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1970
"Tom Wesselmann: The Pleasure Painter," Avantgarde, no. 5, November 1968, pp. 24-28
Tom Wesselmann's signature series, the Great American Nudes, are among the quintessential icons of American Pop Art. Begun in 1961, almost simultaneously with Lichtenstein's experiments with comic strip imagery and Andy Warhol's first appropriations of commercial products, this series started as a discipline: a way for Wesselmann to define himself amongst the many artists and movements in New York at that time. Reacting against the elite painterliness and hermeticism of Abstract Expressionism, he decided to limit himself largely to the national colors of red, white and blue as well as related patriotic colors such as the gold fringe on a flag or the khaki of his army uniform. He borrowed the imagery and visual vocabulary of billboard advertisements, creating simplified and brightly colored nudes that speak of an era of rising consumerism in America, increased permissiveness and the use of sexuality to sell commercial products.
"In 1967" Sam Hunter wrote in his important Wesselmann monograph, "Wesselmann was particularly productive, energetically opening so many novel and promising avenues" and Great American Nude #96 is a typically forward looking and accomplished work of this period. (Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1994, p. 24) One of the first of Wesselmann's shaped canvases, it illustrates his increasing tendency to focus on a part of the body rather than an entire figure, paving the way for his major Bedroom series. By focusing on just a part of the body (the torso in this case), Wesselmann continues the process of simplification and dehumanization that he began by omitting any sense of skin texture, the eyes, the nose, and focusing entirely on the erogenous zones: pubis, breasts, nipples and lips. Like an even more curtailed version of the Venus de Milo, the model is taken further towards objectification, so that her isolated torso no longer relates to individual characteristics and non-sexual areas such as face, hair, arms, and hands are absent. Instead Wesselmann's nude is visually equated to the commercial products that surround her, the accoutrements of an affluent middle class.
These overlapping painted objects also show the continuing influence of the collage technique he used early in his career, reproducing repeatedly the same iconic objects, often loaded with sexual or pleasurable connotations, such as the fruit, the bright orange and yellow flowers, or the leopard print couch. Brightly painted and immaculate, everything seems newly purchased -- including the orange, which shines with an impossibly polished finish, or even the model's Hollywood tan.
The brilliant composition, with the flowers, radio and orange huddled in the foreground like a Morandi still life, has the immediacy of a snapshot, adding a feeling of voyeurism to our gaze. Using his title to ironically play off concepts such as the Great American Novel or the American Dream, Wesselmann paints the intimate in the language of the public, his dazzling colors irresistibly drawing our gaze into a world of easy sensuality and pleasurable gratification. He reinterprets the tradition of the reclining nude, from Titian's Venus to Manet's Olympia, to reflect the tastes and expectations of the American public of his day. The Great American Nude series as a whole stands as both one of the peaks and also the foundations of his entire career, with Great American Nude #96 holding within itself the seeds of much of his later development, from the Bedroom Series to his shaped canvases. A major masterpiece, Great American Nude #96 illustrates his centrality within Pop Art, to which -- in the words of Marco Livingstone -- he made "such an important and visually potent contribution" (Marco Livingstone, "Wesselmann and the Great American Pop Art Movement" in Exh. Cat., Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Tom Wesselmann, 2005, p. 176)