By Alex Greenberger
John Wesley, a painter whose bizarre, beguiling figurations were shot through with eros and anxiety, has died at 93. According to his longtime New York gallery Fredericks & Freiser, the artist died on Thursday morning.
“He was an elegant, kind, and funny man who will be greatly missed,” the gallery wrote in a statement posted to social media.
Wesley’s paintings feature visions based on images scene in mass media that he copied and then modified until they fit his preferred graphic style. Because his subject matter drew from pictures seen in publications, some critics lumped Wesley in with the Pop artists of the ’60s, though Wesley himself expressed an uncomfortableness with that label in the few interviews he gave. Oftentimes critics could not figure out quite what to do with Wesley when it came to classifying his paintings.
“He is really a kind of surrealist, I suppose,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New York Times in 1973, “though no label seems very helpful in his case. He is best described in terms of his obsessive subject matter, which is the juxtaposition, in situations more or less vague and more or less silly or sinister, of the human and the non-human.”
In Wesley’s work, squirrels copulate and nude women duplicate and tumble through vacant spaces. Human bodies come to seem more like cut-out paper dolls—things that can be manipulated, copied, and repositioned with ease. The mood is dark in many of his works, yet one is often inspired to laugh in the midst of jarring combinations of images.
The paintings seem to hint at forms of kinky desire and even sometimes look like advertisements. But any warm eroticism latent in them is tempered by a more disturbing quality that is hard to pinpoint.
Because of the sexual nature of these works, critic Dave Hickey once likened Wesley’s art to Rococo, an 18th-century French movement that evinced a liberated sensibility when it came to carnal matters. “Glance over the length of Wesley’s career, then, and you’ll discover the whole population of Rococo painting; the nymphs and nymphets, nereids and mermaids, sylphs and shepherdesses, geishas and Indian princesses—not to mention numerous nubile young goddesses with animal attributes (birds, bears, turkeys [!], dogs, fish, and bunnies),” Hickey wrote in a 2000 Artforum essay. “There’s even a baby floating on a cloud.”
John Wesley was born in 1928 in Los Angeles and never attended art school. Part of his personal lore is that his father died of a heart attack when Wesley was 5; Wesley claimed this as a reason for his independent attitude. (He wound up becoming closely connected to certain members of the core of the art world, however, and later counted among his friends Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, whose Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, hosts a permanent gallery dedicated to Wesley’s art.) Wesley initially took jobs working at a post office and as a draftsman for Northrop, an aeronautics company, before transitioning full-time to art.
A political streak can sometimes be seen in Wesley’s work of the ’60s and ’70s. Soldiers and forms evoking the American flag appear, though often in ambiguous ways that seem intentionally difficult to parse. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev once wrote, “Under the surface of his absurd utterances, however, a scathing commentary on society, superficiality, power or abuse can be found, if one only wants to look for it.”
Despite being allied with the Pop artists and some of the Minimalists, Wesley was often regarded as an art-historical outsider, and he didn’t have a major retrospective until a show in 2000 at the P.S.1 Center for Contemporary Art (which is now known as MoMA PS1) organized by Alanna Heiss. Another retrospective, at the Fondazione Prada in Venice, was curated by Germano Celant in 2009.
Wesley’s work appeared in the fifth edition of the German exhibition Documenta, in 1972, and in the 1968–69 edition of the Whitney Museum’s Painting Annual, the precursor to the Whitney Biennial.
Wesley did not often like to discuss his work, and when critic Randy Kennedy asked him to describe his painting style in 2009, Wesley simply laughed. “I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “But I seem to have found my own place, which I’m thankful for.”