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

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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."

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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