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Lucinda Towler

Thesis: The Allegorical Pop Art Body

Supervisor: Michael Hatt

I gained my degree in History of Art at Warwick University in 1996, where I developed an interest in both American art and representations of the body. I obtained a bursary which enabled me to undertake my MA at the University of Central England (now Birmingham City University) where I attained a distinction for my work on Nostalgia and Mythmaking in the Comic Book Paintings of Roy Lichtenstein in 1998.

I have a keen interest in representations of the female body and the social construct of gender.

In 2013 an exhibition was held at the Acquavella Galleries in New York entitled Pop Object: The Still Life Tradition in Pop Art. The exhibition of over 75 works was curated by art historian John Wilmerding and was categorised into 4 areas, with ‘body parts’ being one of these. Wilmerding described the works as being some of Pop’s ‘most innovative and witty expressions’ and identified this juxtaposition of body parts and consumer objects as ‘one of the most original areas of Pop attention’. Whilst recognising this conglomeration of two art historical genres – the female nude and still life, Wilmerding did little to explore this fully, describing it as symptomatic of ‘rampant consumer culture’ and the ‘perfect example of woman as object’. Wilmerding gave some acknowledgement to the climate within America in which the artworks were produced – the relaxation of obscenity laws, the mass media and the ‘second wave’ of feminism but I feel that the use of the body in Pop art and particularly its reduction to dismembered fragments has been under-explored.

Among the exhibitors at the Pop Object, Tom Wesselmann was the artist who most widely depicted and ‘Americanised’ the female nude. Throughout his Great American Nude and Bedroom series of works in the 1960s, he reduced the female form to a single body part (primarily the breast), and placed it within a still-life context. It is my intention to examine Wesselmann’s ‘Pop’ representations of the nude, his method of fragmenting or dismembering the female body and consider how this changes the context and interpretation of the naked figure.

In order to achieve this I will be reassessing Matisse’s influence on Wesselmann, specifically his reception in America and his exemplification of an inherently masculine artistic ideology. However whilst Matisse has often been discussed as a major source of inspiration for Wesselmann, I will be looking to other influences which might define the artist’s approach to his subject and his inclination towards fragmentation whilst identifying both as distinctly twentieth century American characteristics.

My research will encompass the writing of Henry Miller (with particular reference to Tropic of Cancer) and an exploration of John Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics as expounded in his Art as Experience. My intention is to draw parallels with Miller’s propensity to describe the female form by way of anonymised, sexual parts and both Wesselmann’s manner of visual representation and his verbal descriptions of women. With regard to Dewey I will consider his conviction that artistic stimuli should come from the artist’s lived environment and be descriptive of ‘an experience’. I propose to explore Wesselmann’s images as being a visceral reaction to his wife posing for him before questioning whose ‘experience’ he is portraying.

Ultimately it is my aim to offer interpretations of Wesselmann’s nudes in terms of violent dismemberments of the body which dilute any sense of female (sexual) power; an attempt to dehumanise and present the female form as a consumer object or as depictions of modern womanhood as allegorical figures of Capitalism, Liberty or the Feminine Mystique.