John Wesley, a painter of flat, cartoonish figures who seemed to come not from the well of Pop Art but from a deeper, alien reservoir of the American unconscious inhabited by floating babies, rubbery nudes and the band’s hapless husband comic Dagwood Bumstead, died Thursday at his Manhattan home. He was 93 years old.
His death has been confirmed by Fredericks & Freiser, the New York gallery that has represented his work for many years.
In a prolific career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Wesley, known as Jack, had the great distinction and occasional critical misfortune of eluding nearly all attempts at categorization. He tolerated the pop artist label, he said, mainly because it got him into shows. Over the years, critics have also variously described him as a “surreal secret agent”, a devious eroticist, a modern manifestation of rococo, a renegade Color Field artist and a “Greek vase painter by Aubrey Beardsley”. .
Sculptor Donald Judd dedicated Mr. Wesley’s paintings alongside masterpieces of minimalism and other rigorously spared work to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, although Mr. Judd seemed uncharacteristically unable to explain exactly why. Mr. Wesley was of no help in clearing up the confusion. He hated talking about his work and only went so far as to concede an errant formal affinity with other artists, past or present.
“My painting, like the German Gothic style,” he once said wryly, “aims for fine construction and precise, clean shaping.”
He also made it clear that he wanted it to be funny, and his peers admired him for it.
“Elaborate good humor to outright madness in Western visible art is rare,” wrote artist Dan Flavin. “Jack Wesley can handle them with uncanny eccentric precision.”
Mr. Wesley has rarely given 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 don’t didn’t go out and tried to be surreal. It was just fun doing what I was doing.
When his dealer held up a piece of the pencil-marked, gridded tracing paper that Mr. Wesley had used throughout his career to translate images from newspapers and magazines onto canvas with hallucinatory alterations, his eyes twinkled mischievously. “It is magic!” he said.
John Mercer Wesley was born on November 25, 1928 in Los Angeles. Her father, Ner, named after an Old Testament patriarch, came home one Saturday in 1934 from his job at a hardware store and died of a stroke on the floor of the family bathroom, where his son, then 5, found him “with his shoes still on”, as Mr Wesley recalled.
He spent a year in an orphanage before his mother, Elsa Marie Patzwaldt, who worked for the Los Angeles Telephone Company, remarried and took him back. The trauma of his father’s death had a profound impact and young Mr. Wesley became a bookish loner, unable to drive before his marriage.
As a young adult, he took art classes at night and took any blue-collar job that came his way, including dishwasher, warehouse storekeeper and riveter. planes. Two of his jobs provided unlikely fodder for the painter he would become. In 1953 he was hired by the illustration department of the Northrop Aircraft Corporation to simplify blueprints into drawings, a task which instilled a love of simple, functional line and matte cyanotype blue, which he used in many early paintings.
After moving to New York in 1960, he took a job as a postal clerk – he described the United States Postal Service as “a very polite prison, full of very decent prisoners” – and began using some of the postal symbols, such as one found on his employee badge and in a shield-shaped postage stamp, as painting subjects.
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 Mr. Johns as representations of “things the mind already knows.”
Mr. Wesley’s reductive renderings of these everyday objects also dovetailed with the work done during those years by Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, whose paintings “Campbell’s Soup Cans” were first exhibited. at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962.
But the visual fixations and style of Mr. Wesley’s work soon turned out to be much stranger than that of his fellow Pops. In 1963, he had brought animals – camels, frogs, baby birds, libidinous squirrels – arranged in repeating frieze-like formations that evoked the sculpture of ancient Egyptian tombs. “Repetition makes things funny,” he once said.
His tracks – “Debbie Millstein Swallowed a Thumbtack”, “Hungarian Dog Wrestler”, “The Day It Rained Babies I Caught a Couple” – sounded like he borrowed them from old vaudeville routines. And he made curiously anachronistic portrait choices, like Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, the Belgian diplomat and president of the International Olympic Committee who oversaw the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. an event whose press images have enthralled Mr. Wesley for years.
Around 1973, he began a long affair with Dagwood Bumstead from Chic Young’s popular comic, “Blondie”. The capped figure became a stand-in for Mr. Wesley’s missing father.
“It’s really my house when I was little – these lamps, these curtains, this chair,” he said of the scenarios in the paintings, sometimes rendered with incongruous evocations of Japanese prints. He added: “My dad was like Bumstead. He was thin like Bumstead, and he wore a tie to work, and when he came home from work at night, he greeted the neighbors. I’m looking for Ner Wesley.
As a young man, Mr. Wesley looked a bit like a cartoon character himself: tall and stooped with a handsome, slender appearance and a tuft of straight brown hair. In New York, he was one of a disparate host of nascent postmodern artists—none of whom made art like his own—which included Mr. Flavin, Mr. Judd, Robert Ryman, and the painter Jo Baer, Mr. 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 his divorce from Mrs 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 she died in 2003.
Mr. Wesley’s work was featured in the international art exhibition Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany in 1972 and was the subject of a retrospective at the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center (now known as MoMA PS1) in Queens in 2000. His work has also entered into major 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 connoisseur’s darling to the end, an elegant and impenetrable voluptuous.
“Wesley’s continued vogue as a painter is, in all respects, closer to that of a great jazz musician or songwriter than 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 don’t care have no idea, but that’s okay too.
Mrs Green, one of the best writers on her husband’s work, said Mr Wesley’s rare talent was in calmly accepting the unknowability of his sources while being able to touch them, like a daydreamer.
“His insights come as the mind transforms (like a globe) into darkness,” she wrote. “His mysterious and varied iconography must have a certain magic, a certain mystery for him too.”
Jaevon Williams contributed reporting.