John Wesley, an artist who couldn't be pinned down, dies at 93

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John Wesley, an artist who couldn't be pinned down, dies at 93
The artist John Wesley at his retrospective exhibit at the Venice Biennale in Italy, June 3, 2009. Wesley, a painter of flat, cartoonish figures that seemed to spring not from the well of Pop Art but from some deeper, stranger reservoir of the American unconscious inhabited by floating babies, rubbery nudes and the hapless comic-strip husband Dagwood Bumstead, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

by Randy Kennedy

NEW YORK, NY.- John Wesley, a painter of flat, cartoonish figures that seemed to spring not from the well of pop art but from some deeper, stranger reservoir of the American unconscious inhabited by floating babies, rubbery nudes and hapless comic-strip husband Dagwood Bumstead, died Thursday at his home in New York City. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Fredericks & Freiser, the New York gallery that has represented his work for many years.

In a prolific career of more than five decades, Wesley, who was known as Jack, had the great distinction and occasional critical misfortune of eluding almost every attempt at categorization. He tolerated the label of pop artist, he said, mostly because it got him into shows. Through the years, critics also described him variously as a “surrealist secret agent,” a sly eroticist, a latter-day manifestation of rococo, a renegade color field artist and a “Greek vase painter by way of Aubrey Beardsley.”

Sculptor Donald Judd enshrined Wesley’s paintings alongside masterpieces of minimalism and other rigorously spare work at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, although Judd seemed uncharacteristically at a loss to explain exactly why. Wesley, who hated talking about his work, would go only so far as to concede a stray formal affinity with other artists.

“My painting, like the German Gothic style,” he once said, “aims at thin construction and precise, clean shaping.”

He also made clear that he meant it to be funny, and his peers admired him for that.

“Elaborate good humor to downright damned foolishness in Western visible arts is scarce,” artist Dan Flavin once wrote. “Jack Wesley can deal with them with weird eccentric precision.”

Wesley rarely gave interviews, but in one, with The New York Times in 2009, on the occasion of a retrospective organized by the Prada Foundation as part of the Venice Biennale, he said: “I didn’t go out and try to be a surrealist. It was just fun doing what I was doing.”

When his dealer held up a piece of the gridded, pencil-marked tracing paper that Wesley used throughout his career to translate newspaper and magazine imagery onto canvas with hallucinatory alterations, his eyes twinkled mischievously. “It’s magic!” he said.

John Mercer Wesley was born Nov. 25, 1928, in Los Angeles. His father, Ner, named for an Old Testament patriarch, returned home one Saturday in 1934 from his job at a hardware store and died of a stroke on the family’s bathroom floor, where his son, then 5, found him “with his shoes still on,” as Wesley recalled.

He spent a year in an orphanage before his mother, Elsa Marie Patzwaldt, who worked for the Los Angeles Telephone Co., remarried and took him back. The trauma of his father’s death had a profound impact, and the young Wesley became a bookish loner, unable to drive until after he was married.

As a young adult, he attended art classes at night and took whatever blue-collar work came his way, including dishwasher, warehouse stocker and aircraft riveter. Two of his jobs supplied unlikely fodder for the painter he was to become. In 1953, he was hired by the illustration department at the Northrop Aircraft Corp. to simplify blueprints into drawings, a task that instilled a love of the simple, functional line and of matte, cyanotype blue, which he used in many early paintings.

Later, after moving to New York in 1960, he took a job as a postal clerk — he described the U.S. Postal Service as “a very polite prison, full of very decent prisoners” — and began using some of the post office’s symbols, such as that found on his employee badge and in a shieldlike postal stamp, as subjects for painting.

This work, he said, was intended to look like “banners, or posters, or something,” and was influenced by Jasper Johns, whose deadpan paintings of flags, targets and numbers were described by Johns as depictions of “things the mind already knows.”

But Wesley’s reductive renderings of such everyday objects also chimed with work being done in those years by Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, whose “Campbell’s Soup Cans” paintings were first shown at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962.

Wesley’s visual fixations and style quickly turned out to be much weirder than those of his pop compatriots. By 1963, he had brought in animals — camels, frogs, baby birds, libidinous squirrels — arranged in repetitive friezelike formations that evoked ancient Egyptian tomb carving. “Repetition makes things funny,” he once said.

His titles — “Debbie Millstein Swallowed a Thumbtack,” “Hungarian Dog Wrestler,” “The Day It Rained Babies I Caught a Couple” — sounded as if they were borrowed from vaudeville routines. And he made curiously anachronistic portraiture choices, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, a Belgian diplomat and president of the International Olympic Committee who oversaw the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, an event whose press imagery beguiled Wesley for years.

Around 1973, he began a long preoccupation with Dagwood Bumstead from Chic Young’s popular comic strip, “Blondie.” The cowlicked character became a stand-in for Wesley’s missing father.

“It’s really my house when I was little — those lamps, those curtains, that chair,” he said of the paintings’ scenarios, sometimes rendered with incongruous suggestions of Japanese woodblock prints. He added: “My father was like Bumstead. He was thin like Bumstead, and he wore a tie to work, and when he came home from work in the evening he tipped his hat to the neighbors. I am seeking Ner Wesley.”

In his youth, Wesley somewhat resembled a comic-book character himself: tall and stooped with craggy good looks and a shock of straight brown hair. In New York, he was a member of a disparate crowd of nascent postmodern artists — none of whom made art like his — that included Flavin, Judd, Robert Ryman and painter Jo Baer, Wesley’s second wife, with whom he had moved east from Los Angeles.

With his first wife, Alice Richter, he had two children, a daughter, Christine Knox, and a son, Ner Wesley, who survive him. After the dissolution of his marriage to Baer in 1970, he married novelist Hannah Green and remained with her until her death in 1996. Painter and playwright Patsy Broderick, mother of actor Matthew Broderick, was his companion for six years, until her death in 2003.

Wesley’s work was shown in the international art exhibition Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, in 1972 and given a retrospective at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now known as MoMA PS1) in the New York City borough of Queens in 2000. His work also entered important public collections, including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. But, in a sense, he remained a cognoscente’s darling until the end — an elegant, inscrutable voluptuary.

“Wesley’s continuing vogue as a painter is, in its every aspect, more closely akin to that of a great jazz musician or songwriter than to that of an American artist,” critic Dave Hickey wrote in Artforum in 2000. “In the enclave of enthusiasts, he is simply John Wesley, an acknowledged master, the Cole Porter of painting. Those who know know; those who care care; those who don’t know or care don’t have a clue, but that’s OK, too.”

Green, one of the best writers about her husband’s work, said Wesley’s rare talent lay in calmly accepting the unknowability of his sources while still being able to touch them, like a waking dreamer.

“His ideas come as the mind turns (like a globe) into darkness,” she wrote. “His mysterious and varied iconography must have a certain magic, a certain mystery for himself as well.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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