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John Wesley. Photo: Fredericks & Freiser.
John Wesley. Photo: Fredericks & Freiser.

John Wesley (1928–2022)

Artist John Wesley, whose work eludes description even as he drew from Pop, Minimalism, and Surrealism, died February 10 at his home in New York at the age of ninety-three. The first major public report of his death was issued in the New York Times. During the course of a career that spanned five decades, Wesley became known for paintings that placed popular, clean-cut comic-strip characters—such as Dagwood and Blondie or Dennis the Menace—in decidedly unwholesome situations. Tinged with sexuality and despair or evoking violence, these darkly humorous scenarios addressed the terror and mundanity attending everyday life. “His art captures a distinctly American sadism that is as compelling as it is unsettling,” wrote Catherine Taft in Artforum in 2015. “We are shown that man is the animal most capable of an artful cruelty.”

Wesley was born in Los Angeles in 1928; his father was a hardware store employee and his mother worked for a telephone company. At the age of five he discovered his father dead of a stroke and was sent to live in an orphanage. His mother retrieved him after a year but he remained traumatized by the event, retaining all his life the sense of being an outsider. Following a stint in art school, which he attended at night while working various odd jobs, Wesley became an illustrator for Northrop Aircraft and then, on moving to New York, a mailman. Both trades profoundly influenced his art, whose hard edges, unvarnished hues, and stark symbolism reflected the precise lines and necessarily iconic forms of the blueprint and the postage stamp.

Often aligned with the Pop art movement thanks to his arrival on the New York scene in the 1960s and his flat, cartoonish paintings, the visual motifs of which were easily apprehended, Wesley’s work was less defined by an interest in consumerism than by a “penchant for erotic narrative,” as critic Dave Hickey, reviewing the artist’s 2000 retrospective at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now known as MoMA PS1) in Queens, New York, noted in Artforum. “The most interesting thing about Wesley's shrewd appropriation of Rococo idioms,” he wrote, “is less the fact that they are there than the fact that we don't notice them, or, if we do, we don't remark on them. Part of this inattention may be attributed to Wesley's disarming levity. . .”

Also drawn to Wesley’s humor were the New York Minimalists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, both of whom remained lifelong close friends and staunch supporters of his work. Judd in 1983 established a gallery at his Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, solely devoted to the display of Wesley’s paintings. A number of them remain on view there today.

Though notoriously interview-shy, Wesley exhibited widely, enjoying solo exhibitions at the Fondazione Prada, Venice; the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany; Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Germany; P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), New York; Portikus, Frankfurt; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. His work was shown at Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, in 1972 and is held in the collections of the Stedelijk and of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, among other institutions.