PRINT September 2009

Linda Norden

John Wesley, Dream of Frogs, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 37 x 58".

JOHN WESLEY MUST MEASURE well over six feet. Yet at the opening of the monumental retrospective orchestrated by Germano Celant for the Fondazione Prada, in the vast Venetian halls of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Wesley’s imposing silhouette was obscured by hundreds of well-wishers. This was not a typical event for an artist long treated as an outsider, an exception to all the art world’s rules.

Indeed, ever since 1963, when Donald Judd threw up his hands in happy despair and proclaimed Wesley’s art “interesting” but essentially uncategorizable—“what some bumpkin made of appearances for some unartistic reason”—critics have worked to fill in the blanks, taking stabs at descriptive language that might account for the unspeakable contents of Wesley’s paintings. His art, as others have expressed in one way or another, is hilarious and heartbreaking, looks like nothing else out there, stings like sex, and lingers like a lovable mutt. There’s a catch-22, though, to such earnest critical efforts, which Wesley alludes to in a typewritten statement reproduced in the show’s catalogue: The need to be “taken seriously” might be hazardous to artists and critics alike. After all, he writes, “I think much of my intent is humor.” (“Things are serious enough,” he has said elsewhere.) Wesley, of course, has managed to elude that dilemma—based on the evidence of his art, he is still very, very funny.

There’s another dilemma that has tugged at Wesley’s critical reception: The artist’s legion of fans are a proprietary lot, for whom Wesley is a secret they want to protect. This may account for his “eternal recurrence,” a career of ever-larger swells, but also a crescendo that’s never quite climaxed. Celant, I’m guessing, has a very different mission in mind, based on the scale and scope of his exhibition. Determined to make as much of Wesley’s art as widely available as possible, and not at all concerned about the dangers of explaining it away, Celant’s retrospective is pitched to a brave new public and conceived in the interest of posterity. His efforts—along with those of Wesley’s long-time gallerists Jessica Fredericks and Andrew Freiser, assisted by Monica Ramos, as well as Wesley’s enthusiastic cooperation—are hugely impressive: The team has located and secured more than 150 works, some of which not even Wesley had seen for years.

“John Wesley” is also curated with great care. The dense salon hanging made necessary by the quantity of work is broken up into intelligent and often subtly responsive subgroupings and labels. The Cini comprises two huge buildings with separate entrances; Celant’s installation uses these spaces to stake out roughly three bodies of work, whose distinct aesthetic modes and moods correlate with shifts in subject matter.

The iconic paintings of the early 1960s open the first gallery. Their expressive poses, symmetrical decorative motifs, and Minimalist-inspired repetition of figures then give way to the preposterous juxtapositions that are Wesley’s unique contribution to the Surrealist legacy: animals nipping and sniffing and humping and hugging inappropriately at the contours of naked or semidressed women, who appear oblivious to our gaze or the animals’ actions or both; benignly banal youngsters and oldsters, bears, and stiffly posed Olympians, rendered hilarious by dint of their canvases’ silly ornate frames or their own inexplicably bemused or ecstatic or dumbfounded expressions. Every painting is subject to one of Wesley’s left-field titles—Batter Up; Kiss My Helmet; Debbie Milstein Swallowed a Thumbtack; Rabbit Girl—which are all the funnier for accurately describing something, but never everything, that’s pictured. To borrow a passage from John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), cited in the catalogue, “[Wesley] does what look like illustrations to children’s animal books until you realize what they are showing. Squirrels fucking and stuff like that.”

The works of the ’60s are racy, but the hieratic quality of the drawing (Celant characterizes it as Art Nouveau), the generally balanced compositions, and the painted frames (which link Wesley’s work to that of his wife at the time, Jo Baer) contain the content and make it feel less out-there. Somewhere between the end of that decade and the early ’70s, Wesley’s line and composition opened up a bit; by the time you reach the second building, the palette and color contrasts have intensified and the line has evolved from nouveau to mannerist, with sharp, jagged edges jacking up the expressive quotient. The sexual content, too, becomes more overt, current, and autobiographical—even as it reflects shifts in the advertising and tabloid source material from which Wesley was working. In the last gallery, the cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead appears; taken from the popular comic strip Blondie, the figure instantly offered Wesley, circa 1973, new access to the spaces and players of his childhood. “My father was like Bumstead,” Wesley has said. “Those lamps, that curtain, that chair. They were in my house then.” A certain pathos, now inextricable from Wesley’s art, seems to have begun at that point. More recently, Wesley has introduced another unsettling and psychosexual alter ego, courtesy of Utamaro.

John Wesley, Bumstead and Dead Geisha, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 59 x 48".

THE EXHIBITION’S STRENGTH is precisely its thoroughgoing comprehensiveness. If one pays any attention at all to individual works, it quickly becomes apparent that for all the constants in Wesley’s art—its repeated subjects, insistent flatness, creamy pastel palette, sexual charge, distinctive anthropomorphism—the variety is inexhaustible and astonishing.

The catalogue, nearly ten pounds, is equally overwhelming. Aside from its cumbersome bulk, however, it is possibly the best print account of an artist’s endeavor I’ve encountered. The writing lacks the flair of much before it, but coupled with the volume’s meticulous biographical and documentary material, it ironically acts as an antidote to appraisals of Wesley’s work that rely on pithy characterizations rather than sustained, detailed analysis. (Wesley’s own writing is included, to wonderful effect: It is succinct, poised, and even more surreally deadpan than his painting.) A good third of the catalogue builds on a chronology compiled in 1982 by Hannah Green, the late fiction writer to whom Wesley was married for twenty-five years and whose writing on the artist remains the most trenchant to this day. Wesley’s friend and studio-mate Bill Barrette adds a moving account of Wesley and Green’s annual sojourns in the medieval French town of Conques between the years of 1975 and 1995. The memoir focuses on a pilgrimage undertaken by the three of them and the resulting, unexpected religious strand in Wesley’s personal history. While not claiming any direct religious iconography or implication in Wesley’s art, Barrette allows that the emotional impact we so regularly find in Wesley’s imagery might connect to a larger curiosity about things spiritual.

After studying Celant’s exhibition and catalogue, I’m inclined to further rethink the marked affect in Wesley’s discerning citations and meticulously constructed tableaux. Wesley’s sources are nothing if not particular. It’s the implausible uses to which he puts these sources—the repetitions, the shifts in position or scale or cropping, the spaces he removes or builds, and the disarming juxtapositions—that work the magic. As Green wrote in 1974, “During what would seem . . . to be a mechanical process, strange and irrational and funny things go on. Accidents are let to happen, the original image is slowly transformed.” And while much of ’80s appropriation (recently revisited in “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) was fixed on a critique of the commercial media it borrowed and not on the subjects it pictured, Wesley’s mode of copying and recontextualization is different, more invasive and idiosyncratic. As a result, his methods appear newly germane: They suddenly seem to have comprehended both digital and drag avant la lettre. Wesley does not borrow the idea of an image or image type; he reinforces his own read of the world by homing in on selected expressive details. Unlike Cindy Sherman, for example, Wesley has studied not only mass media’s individual types and postures but a myriad of psychosexual-social exchanges—or lack thereof—between men and women, women and women, and men and men; between the individuals and the alter egos, the animals and the animated objects, that populate his painting and our world.

By reprinting many of Wesley’s source images, the catalogue reveals how carefully selected these images are, how nuanced is the artist’s reading of their body language (especially the poses of advertising). Wesley’s work gains from this research and from the intelligent and useful design of the show, both of which shift focus from the common denominators in his painting to the specificity of the images he culls and, more important, to his expressive adaptations of those sources through drawing. Celant thus forestalls the generalizations that we’re too ready to proclaim for the artist. What we can do with Wesley now is to look longer and more closely. It only gets better.

Linda Norden is director of the James Gallery at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.