New on view in the Crystal Bridges 1940s to Now Gallery is Dropped Bra (Big Maquette) by Pop artist Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004).
Audiences know Wesselmann best for his Great American Nude series, 100 works featuring nude women in varying tableaus completed between 1961 and 1973. These paintings typically incorporate a red, white, blue, and gold color palette and vary greatly in size and material, frequently incorporating collaged elements alongside the painted scenes. Wesselmann insisted that those paintings were not about the provocative subject matter but instead about perfecting the formal aspects of his style and breathing life into the settings, as well as expressing the intimacy he felt with his wife, Claire. The series arrived in the midst of major cultural changes: a number of obscenity labels placed on literature, a surge in sexuality studies, the FDA’s approval of oral contraceptives in 1960, and the Sexual Revolution. Wesselmann’s Smoker Series—like Smoker #9 also on view in the 1940s to Now Gallery—began only a few years after 1964, the year the Surgeon General declared smoking to be hazardous.
Though his work, with its loud color scheme, exaggerated scale, and use of advertising images, is labeled Pop art, Wesselmann resisted this label because he saw his art as working independently of other Pop artists and toward different goals. The key difference for Wesselmann was that he was not critiquing certain social trends by using advertising images, but using them to pursue an aesthetic vision. Wesselmann’s biggest concern was form, and his progression from the Great American Nude series to the Smoker Series and then into sculptures like Dropped Bra reveal a continuing fascination with formal issues. In these works he varies scale and experiments with pushing the limits of representation, initially in paintings, drawings, and collage, but eventually bringing these same concerns to into three dimensions with his sculptures.
In the rare moments when Wesselmann wasn’t creating visual art, he often wrote: anything from country music to penning his own biography under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth. He was a passionate and efficient writer, but his first love was being in his studio creating visual art and jamming to country music. “I was always like a kid,” he said, “and I still find every day in the studio terribly exciting. I have a good time. It is thrilling for me simply to be able to be there and to create.”