Los Angeles

Vern Blosum, Zip Code, 1964, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 41 3/4".

Vern Blosum, Zip Code, 1964, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 41 3/4".

Vern Blosum

Assembly and Tomwork

Vern Blosum, Zip Code, 1964, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 41 3/4".

Between 1961 and 1964, American Pop artist Vern Blosum produced forty-four canvases illustrating flowers, animals, and infrastructural fixtures outside his Manhattan studio. He painted parking meters, fire hydrants, mailboxes, and stop signs in a deadpan illustrational style executed with middling skill. Depicted on white backgrounds and at roughly life size, the objects float in space, looking at once ominous and dumb. The paintings’ starkly lettered captions are hardly illuminating. Appearing beneath an image of an expired parking meter: ZERO MINUTES. Below a mailbox: ZIP CODE. Below a pay phone: TELEPHONE.

Thankfully, there was more to this excavation of artifacts by yet another obscure painter from the 1960s: The works’ interest lies mainly in the fact that “Blosum” was the pseudonym of a second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose identity is still a secret. The elusive story behind these works began its slow reveal when a TV producer in Southern California discovered a Blosum painting by chance and Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art subsequently included it in their 2011 “Sub-Pop” show; this fall, Tom Jimmerson opened his own enterprise, Tomwork (hosted by Assembly), with a show of thirteen Blosum canvases. The AbExer’s nom de pinceau, taken from “vernal blossom,” was chosen in 1961 to complement the series of botanical illustration paintings with which Vern Blosum invented himself. (A selection from that group was recently on view at Essex Street gallery in New York.) Blosum’s work was initially brought to market by his girlfriend, the soon-to-be love interest of Leo Castelli Gallery’s Ivan Karp, who himself apparently wasn’t in on the hoax. In 1963, Blosum’s Time Expired, 1962, one of many parking-meter paintings, was purchased from Castelli by Alfred H. Barr Jr. for the Museum of Modern Art, an act of legitimation that was accompanied by a flurry of others. Blosums were included in three Pop exhibitions that year and entered the collections of Betty Asher and Robert and Ethel Scull. But in September 1964, Barr, spurred by rumors that the canvases had been painted on a bet by a Pratt student, began pressing Castelli for more information on the artist, and the story slowly began to unravel. Blosum’s parking meter would seem to have been a prescient icon, counting down, as it were, the remaining minutes of his short-lived charade. His final two paintings, fittingly, were both giant stop signs, captioned STOP.

As William E. Jones’s riveting catalogue essay elaborates, a disillusioning experience mounting a show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1961 dissuaded Blosum’s mastermind from trying to live off his artwork, and so for the two days a week when he was not concentrating on the abstract work he believed in, he executed canny imitations of the new, popular aesthetic in order to capitalize on it. At the moment of Pop’s emergence, Blosum took advantage of the conflation of art object and commercial object proposed by the genre’s main protagonists, effectively turning the logic of Pop back on itself. It didn’t matter that Blosum didn’t exist. His ruse succeeded thanks to the institutional acceptance of neo-dada aesthetics and a rapacious art market and culture of criticism desperate for novel products and movements to name. And yet the pictures also fit in with their milieu, succeeding, in some ironic way, as aesthetic objects: “Hoax or no hoax,” Barr wrote to Castelli while Time Expired hung on MoMA’s wall, “I like the painting which is now on view.” The present revival of Blosum’s production is similarly a petition for the works’ inherent allure as images, not just as pranks.

Parallels have been drawn between Blosum and more recent artistic practices that employ pseudonyms as a conceptual device, but the connection is fallacious. The phenomenon of Vern Blosum, now having entered a new chapter of resurrection, may take on the appearance of a groundbreaking artistic experiment, but it should be seen for what it was: the product of cynical reason and an opportunistic creation of art-industry widgets that, at least for a while, enabled an artist to make the (more passé) work he genuinely wanted to make. It is not by chance that Vern Blosum repeatedly chose to paint the machines by which modern men and women mark and literally pay for their time.

Natilee Harren