Naked Or Nude? Wesselmann's Models Are A Little Bit Of Both

  • Smoker #1, 1967. Oil on shaped canvas, in two parts, 9.87 x 7.1 in.
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    Smoker #1, 1967. Oil on shaped canvas, in two parts, 9.87 x 7.1 in.
    The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Great American Nude #35, 1962. Enamel, polymer, found materials on board, 48"H x 60"W, 121.92 cm x 152.4 cm. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.
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    Great American Nude #35, 1962. Enamel, polymer, found materials on board, 48"H x 60"W, 121.92 cm x 152.4 cm. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.
    Travis Fullerton /Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Sunset Nude, Floral Blanket, 2003. Oil on canvas, 91 x 120 in.
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    Sunset Nude, Floral Blanket, 2003. Oil on canvas, 91 x 120 in.
    Jeffrey Sturges/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Bedroom Painting #39, 1978. Oil on canvas, 96"H x 117½"W, 243.7 cm x 298.3 cm. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.
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    Bedroom Painting #39, 1978. Oil on canvas, 96"H x 117½"W, 243.7 cm x 298.3 cm. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.
    Ron Jennings/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Study for Great American Nude #57, 1964. Pencil on paper, 8.875 x 11.875 in.
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    Study for Great American Nude #57, 1964. Pencil on paper, 8.875 x 11.875 in.
    Mugrabi Collection/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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Wesselmann's Great American Nude series depicts women sprawled in front of patriotic backdrops. Above, his 1961 mixed media work Great American Nude #21. i i

hide captionWesselmann's Great American Nude series depicts women sprawled in front of patriotic backdrops. Above, his 1961 mixed media work Great American Nude #21.

Mugrabi Collection/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Wesselmann's Great American Nude series depicts women sprawled in front of patriotic backdrops. Above, his 1961 mixed media work Great American Nude #21.

Wesselmann's Great American Nude series depicts women sprawled in front of patriotic backdrops. Above, his 1961 mixed media work Great American Nude #21.

Mugrabi Collection/Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Sixties pop artist Tom Wesselmann liked women, and saluted them on his canvases — or, sometimes, just parts of them: perfect glossy red mouths with lips parted to reveal pink tongues; nipples, even on the oranges he paints. These are just a few of the images that might make you blush in a Wesselmann retrospective now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

"I don't think you could ask for a more literal interpretation of the objectification of parts of the female body," says curator Sarah Eckhardt.

Before these large works focusing only on closely observed individual body parts, Wesselmann painted a series of full nudes, sprawling indiscreetly against patriotic backgrounds with red, white and blue stripes, and some stars.

The Great American Nude series was Wesselmann's best-known work. Painted in the 1960s, the large canvases featured the colors of Old Glory, sprawly nudes, and on the walls behind them, pasted clippings from magazines: a portrait of George Washington, a photograph of JFK, a reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, the Mona Lisa. What's going on here?

Curator Sylvia Yount says Wesselmann was paying tribute to an artistic tradition: "[He was] putting himself into that larger pantheon of artists who are dealing with the mainstay of art history: the female nude."

Nearly 100 years after Edouard Manet painted his scandalous 1863 Olympia, Tom Wesselmann created The Great American Nude #26. i i

hide captionNearly 100 years after Edouard Manet painted his scandalous 1863 Olympia, Tom Wesselmann created The Great American Nude #26.

Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Nearly 100 years after Edouard Manet painted his scandalous 1863 Olympia, Tom Wesselmann created The Great American Nude #26.

Nearly 100 years after Edouard Manet painted his scandalous 1863 Olympia, Tom Wesselmann created The Great American Nude #26.

Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And he was jockeying himself, as an American artist, into that pantheon. Some of Wesselmann's paintings are funny: Great American Nude #26 (he doesn't do fancy titles), which he painted in 1962, is a very pink figure, lying on what looks like a blue bedspread. On a table behind her, Wesselmann has pasted pictures of various objects cut out of magazines: a man's brimmed hat, a Siamese cat, liquor bottles, a half-eaten chocolate cake, a six-pack of Coke ...

It's a contrast to Manet's scandalous 1863 painting Olympia (you can see it here), in which a nude prostitute reclines on white sheets, ignoring the black maid behind her holding an enormous bouquet of flowers. Wesselmann's 1962 nude gets cake — different times, different tastes.

Now, in 2013, Wesselmann's tastes seem insulting to feminist eyes — seeing women only as sex objects. But curator Sarah Eckhardt says in the pre-feminist '60s (those Playboy and pinup days) women were objectified that way. And if these paintings shock us today, that's part of a long artistic tradition.

"If there's something to resist in Wesselmann, it's something that could be resisted in almost any of the nudes in art history," Eckhardt says.

In fine art, the female body is a nude. In not-so-fine art, she's naked. In Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's Wesselmann show has a bit of both.

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