John Wesley, Chocolate Major, 2002, acrylic on canvas

John Wesley, Chocolate Major, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 63" × 53" × 2" (160 cm × 134.6 cm × 5.1 cm) © John Wesley, Courtesy of The John Wesley Foundation

John Wesley

Portrait of John Wesley in the 1960's


b. 1928, Los Angeles
d. 2022, New York

A unique voice in the canon of Contemporary art, John Wesley is known for his precise, lyrical, and often deadpan painterly investigations of the American subconscious. With no formal artistic training, two of Wesley’s jobs had a direct impact on his early practice.

At the age of 24, he began working as an illustrator in the Production Engineering Department at Northrop Aircraft in Los Angeles where he translated blueprints into drawings. In 1960, he moved to New York, where he worked as a postal clerk, utilizing symbols such as the shield-like postage stamp and his employee badge in his paintings. Later, his practice expanded to incorporate varied and enigmatic iconographies such as animals, beguiling women, and portraiture of subjects including Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, the president of the 1932 International Olympic Committee. Through a carefully refined visual vocabulary of clean lines, solid shapes, and repetition, Wesley imbued everyday scenes and quotidian subjects with humor and wry wit. Exploring themes relating to trauma, eroticism, innocence, and coyness, paintings within his oeuvre are characterized by a linear stylized formation, similar to comic strips, and are often populated with cartoon characters such as Dagwood Bumstead, Popeye, and Olive Oyl. His series, Searching for Bumstead, which he began in 1974 and continued for the entirety of his career, depicts empty interiors—including a vacant armchair, slippers by a bedside, a bathtub filled with water—and is an exploration of the trauma of losing his father, whose sudden death deeply affected him.

Wesley defies categorization as an artist. During the 1960s, as the tenets of Pop art began to take shape, he was grouped with the movement due to the basic elements of his style and subject matter. Wesley exhibited alongside Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, and Roy Lichtenstein but ultimately eluded true categorization both in theory and in practice due to his unique visual language. His first solo exhibition was at the Robert Elkon Gallery, New York, in 1963. Minimalist artist Donald Judd, a lifelong supporter of the artist, reviewed the paintings in the show: “the forms selected and shapes to which they are unobtrusively altered, the order used, and the small details are humorous and goofy. This becomes a cool, psychological oddness.” [1] Wesley was given his own room at the Documenta 5 Retrospective at Kassel (1972) and by the mid 70s it became clear that his work lay somewhere between Pop, Surrealism, and Minimalism, though no label ever encapsulated his singular style. Wesley’s contributions to painting are undeniable and his work is held in public collections worldwide including the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Kunstmuseum, Basel; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

Show Girls by John Wesley

John Wesley, Show Girls, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 32" × 60" (81.3 cm × 152.4 cm)© John Wesley, Courtesy of The John Wesley Foundation

John Wesley, Rumble Strips and Speed Bumps, 1992, acrylic on canvas

John Wesley, Rumble Strips and Speed Bumps, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 114 cm × 153 cm (44-7/8" × 60-1/4") signed on the reverse © John Wesley, Courtesy of The John Wesley Foundation

John Wesley, Afternoon Sail at the Edge of the World, 1978

John Wesley, Afternoon Sail at the Edge of the World, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 48" × 60" (121.9 cm × 152.4 cm) © John Wesley, Courtesy of The John Wesley Foundation