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...
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."
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.