In preparing to write this text on the painter John Wesley—who died at age 93 on February 10th of this year— I read a number of earlier essays wherein critics and historians attempted positioning Wesley as either a Surrealist a Pop Artist or neither, faced off against each other, explained why he wasn’t one or the other, spoke about form versus content and innumerable academic subjects, and generally discussed how dancing works as opposed to what dancing is.
It’s Game Six of the 1992 NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls are about to defeat the Portland Trailblazers. B.J. Armstrong has just passed the ball to Michael Jordan, who’s advancing quickly into Portland’s key. With the ball in his right hand, Jordan pushes off from his left foot and begins sailing over his defenders, the formidable Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter. As Jordan moves closer to scoring, Drexler, Kersey and Porter begin talking amongst themselves about what exactly is happening:
“How does his leg do that, how does he keep his hand so out of reach, why are his muscles unlike ours, somehow superior, otherworldly?” they ask each other.
Lost in a wilderness of questions, they miss the very thing they’re paid to prevent; Jordan has just dunked on them, further securing the Bulls 97-93 win, and the championship title.
John Wesley dunked on the art world. I sensed in these essays writers focusing on the act instead of the magic, denying themselves that rarest of gifts: mesmerization.
This thought came next, some cautionary parable from an imaginary Greek or Polish Buddhist teacher:
“One day a chef began describing to me a soup he’d prepared for my dinner. He described the ingredients and their sources. He described the sources and their antecedents. He described the alchemical virtues of his soup, the effect of one ingredient on another, one component upon the next, and the point did come, after finding myself increasingly hungry and increasingly bored when I finally asked, ‘Dear chef, may I please taste the soup you’re describing?’ To which the chef replied, ‘The soup? Oh no, the soup is now far too cold to be eaten. You must taste it tomorrow, when it is fresh!’”
A lot, I sometimes think, is lost in the art historical drive to categorize and index, a drive that often seems born out of fear of perplexity, and a desire to feel safe in the face of ambiguity.
I’ve always been a fan of this paraphrased quote by photographer Sally Mann, “If it’s not ambiguous, don’t bother.”
Wesley’s deft elusion of categorizability defines his very category: genius, warlock, outlaw, American.
An early draft of this essay implored readers to discover “the greatest American painter you’ve perhaps never heard of”. After examining the catalog accompanying Wesley’s 2001 retrospective at P.S.1—a catalog filled with genial, affable, and entertaining conversations between Wesley and curator par excellence, Alanna Heiss—I changed the sentence to, “The greatest American painter, ever.”
Bold, sure. Not an uninformed opinion though, and, arrogant to state? Also, sure. Not just the greatest American painter, but the most American American painter.
Arrogant also the assumption regarding who people have and haven’t heard of, who’s familiar or unfamiliar with what. My slight, knee-jerk derision of art historical taxonification likely speaks to my own hang-ups as someone who makes paintings, as someone who privileges mystery and disdains ‘artist’s statements’, as someone with an almost dread-shaped awe for, and protective infatuation with, Wesley’s work, so that I can and should write the remainder of this essay simply as someone who loves paintings and painters, and particularly the paintings painter John Wesley left us, having produced close to a thousand over a half century.
Admission: I have no idea what Wesley’s paintings are about. Here’s what they’re about.
John Wesley was first and foremost a pervert, and an exceedingly anxious pervert at that.
In 2013, New York’s Fredericks & Freiser Gallery—who represented Wesley from 1996 until his death—published a catalog accompanying his 2013 exhibition “The Bumsteads”, a show comprised of works spanning thirty-nine years which depicted the original American cartoon nuclear family as disrobed, abject, kinky, suicidal and existentially stultified.
For those too young to be familiar with the Blondie comic strip (centered around the Dagwood family, particularly Blondie and her seemingly hapless, nitwit husband Dagwood Bumstead), imagine Marge and Homer Simpson. The painting on the catalog’s cover, titled simply The Bumsteads (1974), shows Blondie, face down on her bed, nude save a blouse, burying her face in a tissue. On the other side of the bed, hands on the mattress with his face obscured between her spread legs and high heeled shoes, Bumstead stoops fully dressed, about to attempt sexually pleasing his distraught wife, or else recoiling from a rejected attempt at rear-approach cunnilingus.
This is a painting of marriage as real as they come, depicted in just five colors, flatter than flat but as juicy with despair as any painting by Walter Sickert.
Other works in this series:
Off His Feed (1990) shows Bumstead hugging his pillow while Blondie appears to be both tickling his feet and giving him a blowjob. The couple are both fully naked, looking disturbingly both cartoonish and porcine.
Bumstead in Bedlam (1991) is a tall painting showing Bumstead in a straightjacket, his mouth agape in terror.
First Kiss: Blondie Bumstead and Ynes Sanchez (1991) depicts Blondie and her fictional neighbor Ynez, nude, embracing in the shower, about to lock lips.
Bumstead Out the Window (2000) is a painting of the tortured husband apparently leaping to his death, a smile on his face, a twisted update on Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void.
Bumstead and Dead Geisha (2006) depicts Bumstead looking blankly over the shoulder of his apparent sexual companion, a paper-white, dead Geisha.
These images find their origin in what were called “Tijuana Bibles”, dirty comic books produced between the end of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1940’s. Comic books made in small patches, eight pages long, wherein innocent characters from popular cartoons were thrust into prurient, pornographic scenarios. But the sex in these paintings of the Dagwood family is never tittilating, only troubling, and mostly always frustrated. This is the genius of Wesley’s appropriation of the family; the Dagwoods become proxies for the average American couple. Sex plays a small part in the work, and only in service of the overarching theme; psychological unease. In this way, Wesley turned fan-fiction into high art. The true perversity lies not in the sexual element but in the perverting of the sexual element.
He draws us in with the appearance of some naughty transfiguration only to show us ourselves, rendered flatly, dumbly, in Easter colors, our entertainment media accusing rather than amusing us. At first the familiarity evokes laughter, but soon the uncanniness evokes tears.
No art is more successful than that which can make you both laugh and cry, either at once or in alternation.
Wesley has a connection to Karen Kilimnik, another outlier who resists categorization, and who co-opts figures from culture and history to further her own personal world-making. Leonardo DiCaprio becomes a prince while some supermodel, a suffering Russian princess. Wesley in some ways painted science-fiction, or at the least, speculative fiction. What if, instead of the Dagwood family freezing when we close the newspaper, they continued on with their lives, argued over affection or housework, the reciprocation of orgasms, who was pulling their weight in disciplining the kids?
This is but a fraction of Wesley’s output, and in no way the most discomfiting. Common throughout his paintings are depictions of nude women, nude men and nude children in comminglement, alone, or as often was the case, with animals. In one painting (Rabbits, 1968) a woman lays on her back, giving birth to a rabbit, the seventh in a litter of which six have already assumed a patterned formation. In another painting (Birthday, 1990) a Disney type duck is giving birth to what appears to be a fully formed human leg. In Leda & The Man (1972) a man, naked save braces, chases after the mythological swan. Certainly there are nude women, but there are also nude men, nude bears, nude elephants. Beyond the social order, the very order of nature is shattered. Camels are accosted by horse-human hybrids (Camel, 1966) and kangaroo’s keep dogs as pets (Slave, 1971). Wesley’s work is not about shock however, this would be a mistaken reading. Instead his work is about taboo, and particularly about fetish. He was mistakenly considered a Pop Artist, but really wasn’t, and was mistakenly considered a Minimalist, but really wasn’t that either. John Wesley was uncategorizable, uncharted and unapologetic, and therefore unmistakably American, in the greatest of ways.
I admit to being an artist more interested in content than form. Amongst Wesley’s greatest supporters were the seminal Minimalists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Certainly they were correct in admiring his work, with it’s super limited palette, its obsession with flatness and an almost claustrophobic perspective, so that when looking at one of Wesley’s paintings one gets the sense of drowning within it. Such is his work that I’m too enamored of the subject to also praise his technique, which is clearly praisable, but also outside my area of expertise.
In Wesley’s paintings you see figures morph into shapes, or the limbs of figures at least, that sometimes evoke Robert Gober’s ultra-spooky disembodied limbs, trapped in and calling out from the most abject of locales. In his obsession with pattern and gift for turning anthropomorphism into abstraction, one single painting predicts the entire body of work of painter Inka Essenhigh (Four Balls, 1989).
I’ve never seen paintings as creepy as Wesley’s.
I’ve never seen paintings as funny as Wesley’s.
I’ve never seen paintings that look like Wesley’s, and the sign of a rare, singular talent, is that nobody even bothers attempting to mimic it.
While writing this, I did make a connection to someone whose paintings feel obliquely like Wesley’s, whose paintings also on occasion turn human limbs into animal shapes, turn animal shapes into abstractions, then turn abstractions back into shattered, horrified human limbs: Francis Bacon. Bacon and Wesley, both with the post-Hiroshima/post-Auschwitz vibe, depict creatures bursting with the awful awareness that we as a species can inflict the uninflictable on our own kind. Bacon did it with screaming popes. Wesley did it with the wide, flat face of Donald Duck, his mouth stuffed to capacity with svelte female legs (Gluttony, 1969).
John Wesley was also punk rock, The Ramones to Bacon’s Sex Pistols. He possessed the quintessential American frontiersman attitude, was a world-maker and shaper. He consumed the media of his youth, digested it, dreamt it, then spit it back into the culture, a body of work as chimeric American unease. All of it cut with a certain punk rock ‘fuck you’, a smiling ‘the fuck if I care what you think’, which ultimately is necessary for the creation of any art of lasting value.
John Wesley is gone. Long live John Wesley.