Wealth and Lust in Monaco: The Sensuous Illusions of Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann, "Seascape #10," 1966. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann. Image courtesy of the New National Museum of Monaco.

The vitality of sexual liberation in a perpetual summer, slick with a well-advertised promise of paradise. Sunstroked bodies lotioned and perfumed with coconut sunblock and a thin sheen of sweat bask on beach towels facing the azure waters off the coast of Monaco. A Lamborghini roars past, disappearing around a curve. There are no straight roads in the tiny Principality of Monaco; the streets bend and swerve, arching over hills, curling past cliffs and caps, coiling beneath the villas and hotels in underground tunnels. The contours of its streets, a product of geography, still feel like a listless pleasure, a finger run along the body of the Riviera. With its confectionary casinos and glassy towers overlooking the magisterial blue of the Mediterranean, this is a kind of paradise expertly cultivated and designed for the extremely wealthy. And it works: Monaco is beautiful, its luxurious languor is real and alluring, a very exclusive illusion, a pleasure with a price.

Classy and trashy, a certain eroticism settles over the country in the summertime. A sexual ease lingers, salacious without ever dipping into the primal. Sex like slipping into a pool, a glass slipper, the buttery leather front seat of a Bentley. High above Monaco in the New National Museum of Monaco’s Villa Paloma, a villa-turned-museum with creamy mosaic floors and a princely view of the sea, an exhibition of work by American artist Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) is impossible to see without absorbing the landscape around it. In Seascape #10 (1966) on painted, molded plexiglass, a single leg with a red painted toenail stretches glossily over the horizon line of the sea, a few clouds separating the deep blue of the water from the soft blue of the sky, and wherever that svelte limb might have been originally set, it always belonged here in Monaco. With his sexy bods, deep tans, and pop plentitude, his paintings feel a little paradisiacal, but wrought with the unceasing brightness of a mid-century advertisement. Wesselman makes it into all the surveys of Pop art, but his renderings of everyday capitalist artifacts – this exhibition includes a painting of a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise in Still Life #48 (1964) – never fit snugly alongside Warhol, whose deadpan glamor feels chilly and bloodless by comparison. Where Warhol’s cool, Wesselmann’s hot. Advertising is about cultivating desire, anticipation. Wesselmann’s not selling us anything, exactly, but his work reflects on the moment of abundance, leaving Victorian morality and wartime rationing behind for the post-war boom and the liberations that gradually – and then suddenly – exploded out of it.

Tom Wesselmann, “Gina’s Hand,” 1972-82. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann. Image courtesy of the New National Museum of Monaco.

And though Wesselmann certainly took cues from the outsized force of billboard advertisements, he was always very much a painter. Drawing inspiration for his compositions from de Kooning and Matisse, his pictures are shaped by the way a figure can artfully turn, how color and form can become a body, making flesh more real than real. Even flattened by the eager American salesmen’s ads, sex can still be the power of creation, the underlying force of life. His desires, resolutely those of a mid-century dude, unfold with a closeup of smoking lips, a body arced and smiling in a bedroom in his most famous series Great American Nudes (of which numerous finished works and studies are on view here). All are wrought with a precise intimacy in contrast to their size: the giant cut outs/shaped canvases of Sneakers and Purple Panties (1981) maintain the casual abandon of a midsummer fling, an easy companion to the huge Dropped Bra (Big Maquette) (1978-80).

Curator Chris Sharp is clearly careful about the perceived sexism and female objectification that are endemic to critiques of Wesselmann and offers a rejoinder through his subtle interventions.  In the exhibition, Sharp foregrounds the agency of female sexuality as subject as well as object in Wesselmann’s work. In Second Drawing for Great American Nude #46 (1963), the woman in question is caught in joyous masturbation. Rather than supine and submissive, she directs the scene: her hand slips down dark panties, her body, clearly for her own delectation. Wesselmann’s drawing flows with lovely lines sketched with charcoal dust and erasures, a smudge that adds to the physicality of the moment. One imagines the drawing live-sketched, less the classic nude made with the pop of a billboard, but something with the messy immediacy of actual sex (the closest he really gets in this exhibition). Wesselmann’s interest was less in bodies as pure objects (though that hard layer is definitely there), than in sexuality – female sexuality in particular – as a force.

Tom Wesselmann, “Big Study for Great American Nude #75,” 1965. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann. Image courtesy of the New National Museum of Monaco.

Writer Sabrina Tarasoff puts the operative questions quite succinctly in her catalogue essay for the exhibition: “Who gets to be the object? Who gets to look, let alone touch, let alone represent? […] what is gained and lost (now, then) in being nude as opposed to naked, being ‘other’ rather than yourself, or body instead of woman?”  But her next sentence evades easy answers: “Too bad time’s up – well, I’ve given up – on solving the unsolvable staring contest between man and women.” I’d like to read one kind of solution in a woman’s long, hard return of a gaze: back and down, to each other and themselves, an agency where the “object” asserts her subjectivity, not present for anyone’s pleasure but her own.

Sharp also includes paintings that capture the artist’s objectification across both genders. A disembodied cock juts like a pornographic monument in Seascape #27, (1967-69), a engorged companion to that lithe leg (and given Monaco’s decidedly male denizens’ conspicuous consumption of fast cars and big yachts, maybe this particular pecker slides rather easily into the symbolic). Another dick pops out in Study for Bedroom Painting #20 (1969) alongside a basket of consumer items not unlike the iconic Bedroom Tit Box (1968-70, not on view). This objectification of both men and women provides a lurid thrill and, simultaneously, a commentary on a capitalist utopianism: bodies as just another product, blown up and blown out. Even though the images certainly allude to the erotic, it rarely gets actually raw. To my knowledge, no one has ever throbbed in front of these flat nudes. Wesselman notes it himself (writing in the third person under the pen name of Slim Stealingworth): ““Wesselmann was aware of the relationship between scale and eroticism. Too big a scale and eroticism decreases – perhaps because it is too hard to relate to a fifteen-foot woman.” In this oeuvre, all bodies get caught in capitalism’s “promise of happiness,” which often manages in the US to be both too much and never enough.

The trick with Wesselmann – like Monaco itself – is that although we know modernity comes wrapped up in a capitalist’s manipulation of our desires, pleasure still feels good, however we arrive.  There’s a tension in this clearly, one that complicates Wesselmann’s work, but in a way that I think is more compelling than problematic. Wesselmann understands the machinations of the fake utopia of advertising, but doesn’t deny the arousal, the pleasure that can still derive from its illusory offerings. Aptly, the exhibition’s title is drawn from Stendhal’s On Love from 1822: “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.”

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