Fine Art

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Back in the 1960s, famous artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein painted images from popular culture; soup cans, comic books, as high art. A retrospective at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond features a pop artist whose name is less well known.

And some of his work made NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg blush.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Porno, filthy pictures? That'll get you to the website. Tom Wesselmann liked women and saluted them on his canvases. Or, just parts of them, sometimes.

SYLVIA YOUNT: The nipple.

STAMBERG: Even his navel oranges have nipples. And then there's the Wesselmann oral fixation.

YOUNT: The mouth - the open mouth.

STAMBERG: Virginia Museum curators Sylvia Yount and later, Sarah Eckhardt.

SARAH ECKHARDT: Pink tongue...

(LAUGHTER)

ECKHARDT: ...that really extraordinarily pink tongue.

STAMBERG: And perfect lips. They're pillows.

ECKHARDT: I don't think you could ask for a more literal interpretation of the objectification of parts of the female body.

STAMBERG: Before these large works, focusing only on glossy individual body parts, Tom Wesselmann painted full nudes sprawling indiscreetly against some patriotic backgrounds.

ECKHARDT: American presidents, the stars, the stripes, the red white and blue.

STAMBERG: This was Wesselmann's best-known work, a 1960s series called "The Great American Nude." On each large canvas, the colors of Old Glory; the 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? Sylvia Yunt says Wesselmann was paying tribute to an artistic tradition.

YOUNT: And putting himself into that larger pantheon of artists who were dealing with the mainstay of art history - the female nude.

STAMBERG: And jockeying himself as an American artist into that pantheon.

Some of Wesselmann's paintings are funny. "Great American Nude Number 26" - he doesn't do fancy titles, doesn't really need to. "Number 26" from 1962 is a very pink nude, lying on a blue bedspread, maybe. And on a table behind her, he pastes color pictures of various objects he's cut out of magazines; man's hat with a brim.

YOUNT: The Don Draper moment, I think we have, from "Mad Men."

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNT: A Siamese cat, half-eaten chocolate cake, Beefeater Gordon, and then that six pack of Coke.

STAMBERG: Manet's 1863 "Nude Prostitute" reclines on white sheets, ignoring a big bouquet of flowers her black maid is holding. Wesselmann's 1962 nude gets chocolate cake - different times, different tastes.

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

ECKHARDT: If there's something to resist in Wesselmann, its something that could be resisted in almost any of the nudes in art history that you would look at.

STAMBERG: 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, it closes July 28th has a bit of both.

MONTAGNE: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

See if you blush at some of Tom Wesselmann's work. It's at NPR.org.

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