Tom Wesselmann’s massive late nudes are the subject of a show at Almine Rech in London opening this week. Some of these ‘joyous’ works are massive—10-ft wide or 10-ft high—and still have the capacity to “confound or shock [his] most ardent followers,” in the words of Susan Davidson who wrote an essay on the effect of the works of Wesselmann’s last decade.
The sheer size of much of Wesselmann’s late works surely worked against them before the recent taste for over-sized art. These works from the estate—which is jointly represented by Almine Rech and Gagosian Gallery—include this Sunset Nude, Floral Blanket from 2003, above, and Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque from the same year. The show also features a 7-ft painted aluminum cut out Three Step.
Here’s Almine Rech’s press release for the show:
Almine Rech London is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Tom Wesselmann, opening January 30th and continuing until March 23, 2019. The exhibition will consist of rarely shown works from the artist’s final years. This presentation will include three large Sunset Nude paintings, alongside abstract cut-out steel works, seen together publicly for the first time, and Exhibition Detail, a monumental assemblage exemplary of Wesselmann’s ability to blur the lines between abstraction and figuration, allowing for their harmonious coexistence. A selection of archival material, comprised of preparatory drawings, three-dimensional working maquettes, documentary photographs and the artist’s sketchbooks will also be on view.
The following text by Susan Davidson, excerpted from her essay Opposites Attract: The Parallel Course of Tom Wesselmann’s Last Decade (2018), elaborates upon the themes and works included in the exhibition:
Occasionally for artists toward the end of their careers, a sense of accomplishment can set in, liberating them from decades-long concerns about their reception. A devil-may-care attitude inhabits their psyche, giving way to an openness that can dominate their art. Subject matter may change or expand in unexpected ways. Their last works are often more joyous, even humorous, and can confound or shock their most ardent followers. Such is true of the final decade of Tom Wesselmann’s prolific career.
An acknowledged practitioner of the Pop art movement that emerged in the 1960s (although he dismissed the association), Wesselmann is most often recognized for his distinctive treatment of the female nude. Indeed, Wesselmann’s work held tight to the aesthetics of that pictorial language for the forty-five years he produced art work. One might contend that Wesselmann is among the greatest painters of the female nude in the second half of the twentieth-century, continuing a lineage that began centuries prior with European masters such as Titian, Velázquez, and Rubens. However, Wesselmann’s earliest artistic investigations began altogether differently. Like many artists, especially in New York in the late 1950s, when abstraction dominated art school curriculums, gallery shows, and collectors’ walls, Wesselmann first worked exclusively as an abstract artist. The art world may never have known Tom Wesselmann, had the recent Cooper Union graduate continued creating art in this vein. Yet it would be to these abstract roots that Wesselmann would return, with great verve and originality, in 1993–94 with a seemingly radical approach to his better-known works.
It was a chance encounter in the summer of 1993 with the materials used in making his “steel drawings” (the term he assigned his figurative aluminum cut-out wall sculptures begun in the 1980s) that brought Wesselmann back to his origins:
Some weeks ago, another little change arose. I had finished a laser metal work. I cut up the mylar painting of it (first state of the work is to cover it with mylar and resolve the painting, rapidly applied and changed liquitex) before throwing it away. These numerous small sections, not totally abstract, were interesting. When overlaid & moved around they had an irresistible appeal to my eye. I rather quickly laid out an abstract painting. . . I resolved to follow this thoroughly.
He quickly grasped that the strips of colored mylar could be treated as pieces of an “infinitely malleable puzzle,” easily shifted, shuffled, sequenced, and ultimately enlarged to full-scale works. This quantum leap into long-forgotten territory would completely absorb the artist for the remainder of his artistic life. The new works, visually distant from his figurative idiom, were still connected to an equally strong element at the heart of his art: collage.From his first Pop assemblages forward, he placed printed reproductions and manufactured three-dimensional objects, such as television sets or shower curtains, in dynamic juxtapositions. The mylar cut-outs that represented the strips of color populating his steel drawings now served the same purpose—a massing of collaged components that Wesselmann worked into hard-edged, shaped paintings. His resultant abstract paintings were in essence schematic collage compositions, an abbreviation of the landscapes, still lives, and zoomed-in body parts that occupied his steel drawings. (…)
In their scale and originality, Wesselmann’s abstract paintings suggest distillations of modern colorists such as the geometry of Piet Mondrian or the brushwork of De Kooning. Owing to the paintings’ scale and depth, many historians compare Wesselmann’s work to Frank Stella’s shaped canvases. In the late 1960s, Stella produced his Protractor series, paintings of multicolored stripes and curves in strict, flattened patterns; these later gave way to a more elaborate, off-the-wall body of energetic multilayered constructions that Wesselmann may have been aware of. (…)
Although this abstract vein pushed and pulled Wesselmann, he was truly exhilarated by the works he created. He slowly returned to painting his primary subject, the female nude, in his last years, reserving Fridays when the studio was quiet to bond again with this leitmotif. Until his death in December 2004, he worked simultaneously in abstraction and figuration, metaphorically running a parallel race that culminated in the luscious and succulent Sunset Nudes and his most arabesque hard-edged abstract paintings. Examples of both comprise this exhibition. Despite the differences between them, each body of work shares intense color and a high degree of finish. (…)
The forthright and unapologetic Sunset Nudes—Wesselmann’s last body of work—were both super-charged and grandly scaled. Broad, flat expanses of color dominate in slick, shiny applications of Wesselmann’s signature primary colors. The artist found innovative ways to incorporate imagery in his late paintings that acknowledge his Great American Nudes from forty years earlier. Now, the handmade quality of Wesselmann’s 1960s work is given over to a more sophisticated and stripped-down use of color and imagery. Wesselmann’s nudes were always drawn from a live model in deference to the meticulously planned and fully conceived nature of his art and working methods. Certainly, by this advanced stage in his career, he knew the form in great detail. The Sunset Nudes, consequently, are idealized, almost abstracted composite versions of all his previous models. The figure is Amazonian in stature, larger and more dominant, recumbently posed, luxuriating her figure across the full-length of the canvas (…)
The series title derives from the paintings’ landscape backgrounds, and gains irony as the works literally became the sunset of Wesselmann’s career, though he surely could not have anticipated such a conclusion when naming these splendid paintings. Hints of how Wesselmann might have pushed the Sunset Nudesfurther are seen in two examples—one realized, the other cut short by his death—redolent of his Bathroom Collages from the 1960s. Sunset Nude with Frame (2004), considered among his last fully executed artworks, is an aluminum cut-out of a nude placed into an approximately six-foot-square “frame.” The work has morphed into a dimensional wall-hanging assemblage nearly a foot deep. Simultaneously, he was envisioning a larger assemblage inhabited by a Sunset Nude. (…)
Exhibition Detail is an assemblage of pictorial space in the manner of Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes(1961–73)—intended, more than the earlier series, to be experienced by the viewer like a shop window. The work, never before exhibited, underscores the lengths to which the artist was engaged during the process of making his art. In this case, Wesselmann wanted to envision how his upcoming exhibition, Nudes and Abstracts, might look at the Robert Miller Gallery in 2003 (his last lifetime outing). A seemingly simple exercise, and yet Wesselmann toiled on Exhibition Detail as an elaborate studio project for over a two-year period. (…)
While wedded to collage and abstraction from the start, Wesselmann devoted considerable bodies of work to the nude, his most recognized achievement. Each style is represented in equal measure in Exhibition Detail. Thus, the assemblage is not so much a treatise on his transition from abstraction back to the female nude, but a visual demonstration of the two threads that defined his art in his last decade. It may have been an overstatement on his part, but one that was highly meaningful to him. And since Wesselmann did not know that Nudes and Abstracts would be his final lifetime exhibition, Exhibition Detail assumes a poignancy within his oeuvre. Abstraction and figuration harmoniously cohabit comfortably in this assemblage. As John Wilmerding rightly observed: “It is one last reminder of how integrated and internally coherent” Wesselmann’s art was. Fittingly, the artist himself offered his own sentiment: “In the past year my involvement has grown too intense with the [Sunset] nudes, and they simply fight it out with the abstracts on a daily basis.” How better to end the fight, so to speak—not that it was ever brutal—than to embrace their co-existence and allow each body of work to shine in all its vivid color and confidence as the late work of an artist as gifted as Tom Wesselmann can in his last years. These achievements were a glorious farewell.