John Wesley

American painter John Wesley was born in Los Angeles, California in 1928. After tragically discovering his father dead at home due to a stroke in 1934, Wesley had to move into an orphanage. A year later, Wesley's mother remarried and regained custody of him. Once he finished school, Wesley worked as a dishwasher, warehouse stocker, and aircraft riveter. He did not have any formal artistic training when he started to create abstract paintings in an expressionist style in his early twenties. From 1953 to 1958, Wesley was employed by Northrop Aircraft Corporation as an illustrator, specifically, turning blueprints into simplified drawings. In 1960, Wesley moved with his second wife, Jo Baer, the abstract minimalist painter, to New York City, where Wesley worked as a postal clerk.

During the early 1960s, Wesley's paintings were influenced by his time as an illustrator and at the post office. Reminiscent of the work of Jasper Johns or Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Wesley initially produced compositions replete with blue schematic lines and symbols like stamps, seals, and shields. With The Aviator's Daughters (1963), Wesley shifted into a new phase in which he featured one or more cartoonish figures framed by repeating motifs. In the mid-1960s, Wesley's art began to take a decidedly more erotic turn, with nude or semi-clothed men, women, and anthropomorphic animals reproduced in frieze-like formations. Wesley's work in the early 1970s centered more on domesticity's varying pleasures and predicaments. Daddy's Home (1972) presents five depictions of a pigtailed young girl with an expression suggesting both excitement and dread.

In 1973, Wesley began to borrow characters from 1950s comic strips, including Popeye, Blondie, and Dagwood Bumstead, who would make the most appearances in Wesley's paintings in decades to come. Bumstead served as both a surrogate father figure for Wesley and an American Everyman, struggling with desire, frustration, hopelessness, and tedium. In the 1990s, Wesley explored and subverted gender roles with works like Off His Feed (1991), which shows a nude, vulnerable Bumstead lying passively with Blondie tickling his toes. For a variation on this theme, Wesley introduced a female character in the 2000s that he appropriated from the eighteenth-century ukiyo-e art of Kitagawa Utamaro. This Japanese woman is often juxtaposed with Bumstead in Wesley's later paintings, such as Utamaro Washing, Bumstead Sleeping (2003).

While Wesley's style has certain Pop attributes, namely, his repurposing of cultural iconography, critics have increasingly tended to view him as an art outsider beyond clear categorization. Wesley's clean lines and limited palettes, along with his childlike imagery, mordant eroticism, deadpan humor, and mysterious symbology, suggest that he employs Pop concepts within a framework that leverages minimalism and surrealism. At the same time, Wesley blends genres, making use of comic strips and commercial visuals in concert with classical and Japanese art, Art Nouveau, Matisse-like dancers, and more.

John Wesley passed away at age ninety-three at his home in Manhattan in 2022, but his inimitable style and artistic legacy endure. During his lifetime, Wesley was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and American Academy of Arts and Letters. Today Wesley's works are held in various important private and public collections, including at the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

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