JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)
JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)
JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)
JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)


JOHN WESLEY (1928-2022)
signed, titled and dated ''POPEYE' John Wesley 1973' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
48 x 61 5/8 in. (122 x 156.5 cm.)
Painted in 1973.
Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Santa Monica
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Pagel, “Charm, Trauma Mix in John Wesley Works,” Los Angeles Times, 22 October 1992., p. B9 (illustrated).
John Wesley: Paintings 1961-2000, exh. cat., P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, 2000, p. 19 (illustrated).
John Wesley, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Venice, 2009, pp. 171, 342, 430, 511, 539 and 541, no. 276 (illustrated).
Santa Monica, Daniel Weinberg Gallery, John Wesley: A Survey of Paintings 1962-1992, October-November 1992.
Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museum, John Wesley Love's Lust, January-February 2001.

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Lot Essay

I didn’t go out and try to be a surrealist. It was just fun doing what I was doing.(J. Wesley, quoted in R. Kennedy, “John Wesley, an Artist Who Couldn’t Be Pinned Down, Dies at 93”, The New York Times, 2022).

Immediately recognizable for its combination of wry humor and crisp, unadulterated lines, John Wesley’s oeuvre is filled with pointed scenes, political critiques, and strange combinations of familiar subjects. Popeye is an especially evocative example masquerading under the cheery visage of a comic book panel. But there is no grotesque action here, the gun has not been fired. Instead, we are left to wonder what exactly is before our eyes. Often employing unnerving facial expressions, repetition, and the conjunction of cartoon imagery with more serious subjects, Wesley often touched upon the surreal where the recognizable morphed into something outlandish. “I didn’t go out and try to be a surrealist,” the artist noted rather matter-of-factly, “It was just fun doing what I was doing” (J. Wesley, quoted in R. Kennedy, “John Wesley, an Artist Who Couldn’t Be Pinned Down, Dies at 93”, New York Times, 2022). With a practice that very rarely varied in style throughout the several decades he was working, Wesley’s ability to coax surprise, desire, and above all laughter, from his audience will continue to inspire generations of viewers and artists alike.

Painted in flat acrylic, Wesley’s graphic style is unmistakable. The white border surrounding the unmodulated blue background acts as an interior frame akin to the cell of a comic strip. Two characters inhabit this empty space, their bodies filling the scene with toes just so slightly breaking the white frame’s barrier. On the right, the blindfolded figure of J. Wellington Wimpy stands with his arms behind his back, facing to the right. A recurring character within the Popeye comics, and often acting as the straight man to the titular sailor’s shenanigans, he wears a dark jacket, blue tie, and matching bright mustard slacks and pork pie hat. Behind him on bended knee, a menacing amalgam of cartoon characters points a light maroon pistol at his partner’s head. With heavy eyes and a sour grimace, this figure exhibits the anchor tattoo of the title character but also seems to draw from figures like Dennis the Menace and Fred from Scooby-Doo. Critic Ken Johnson, writing for Art in America, said that the artist’s works were populated, “as though the clichés of popular culture had been dipped in the pool of the artist’s unconscious and come out soaked with private meanings, associations and feelings.” (K. Johnson, quoted in R. Kennedy, “Pop and Rococo Meet and Greet,” New York Times, June 8, 2009). Each of Wesley’s figures has connections to the real world yet are purposefully separated from their contexts and made to exist in an uneasy environment somewhere between an illusionary picture plane and a flat cartoon cell.

In 1953, Wesley was hired by Northrop Aircraft Corporation to translate blueprints into more readable drawings. From this practice, he gleaned a love of cyanotype blue fields and simple, bold linework, both of which made their way into his later career. He moved to New York in 1960 and continued making art that drew from the world around him. Of particular interest to Wesley were newspaper comics like Chic Young’s “Blondie” and the hapless character of Dagwood Bumstead. Popeye and his comrades also make frequent appearances as seen in the present example. During this time, artists like James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein were also looking to the Sunday funnies and billboards for an insight into how images were viewed and consumed in a capitalist world. Wesley’s peers connected their work to an investigation into popular culture and gave birth to Pop art proper. Wesley, on the other hand, never played fully into this movement, and though related via his use of appropriative techniques and graphic renderings, always remained an outsider by choice.

Famously reticent to talk about his own work, Wesley was nonetheless highly respected by a cadre of artists working in the Post-Modern mode. Among his confidants were Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin, none of whom worked in a similar vein as the painter but who all grew as artists together. The late critic Dave Hickey remarked in an article for Artforum, “In fact, Wesley's continuing vogue as a painter is, in its every aspect, more closely akin to that of a great jazz musician or songwriter than to that of an American artist. In the enclave of enthusiasts, he is simply John Wesley, an acknowledged master, the Cole Porter of painting. Those who know know; those who care care; those who don't know or care don't have a clue, but that's okay, too” (D. Hickey, “Touché Boucher: John Wesley’s Gallant Subjects,” Artforum, October 2000). Wesley’s works exist between Pop and Surrealism, never clearly landing in either camp. Oftentimes, as in Popeye and its allusions to execution, he injected seemingly childish subjects with graver meaning. His ability to extract the look and feel of cartoon characters from their sunny realm and place them in conversation with very real but heavily dramatized issues will forever mark the painter as a true radical within his milieu.

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