JOHN WESLEY | B's Ladder

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Hollis Taggart
B's Ladder, 1973–74
Gouache on paper
Titled, signed, and dated lower left: "'B's LADDER' / John Wesley 1973–74"
27 1/8 x 31 1/8 x 1 1/4 in. (framed)
21 x 20 in. (unframed)


Robert Elkon Gallery, New York
Walter and Molly Bareiss

In his opening line for his review of John Wesley’s retrospective at the 2009 Venice Biennale, New York Times critic Randy Kenney said, “For more than 40 years the art world has never known quite what to do with John Wesley and the paintings that seem to tumble out of his dreams.” (1) His B’s Ladder, a gouache on paper from 1973-74, certainly supports this claim. The painting is of the top portion of a ladder, propped up against the corner of a light pink house just under the eaves of its darker pink roof and just next to a window whose shade is pulled most of the way down, set against a blue sky that is almost completely obscured with white cloud. The colors are flat and bold, almost aggressively so, but the viewer is given a slight visual respite as the eye follows the distant group of birds that seem to fly away toward the upper right corner of the composition. Looking at this piece, one wonders: who is B, and where has he gone? Why has this ladder been abandoned? Despite its precise execution in flat colors and concrete lines, B’s Ladder is a mysteriously enticing work.

B’s Ladder is a classic example of Wesley’s clean, graphic style, almost like an avant-garde interpretation of Disney. Wesley is often celebrated for the humor he inserts into his otherwise highly sophisticated aesthetic, which causes him to sit uncomfortably within the “Pop” designation that he is usually given. While his style is cartoon-like, with bold colors and clear outlines, his subjects lack the mass-produced or consumer society characteristics of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and other Pop artists. Some characterize him as an “eccentric Pop painter with surrealist tendencies,” (2) and perhaps this is the best description possible. B’s Ladder employs a Pop-like graphic aesthetic within a surreal, bizarre scene.

John Wesley was born in Los Angeles, California in 1928. Largely a self-taught artist, Wesley developed the basis of his artistic practice while employed as an illustrator in the Production Engineering Department of Northrop Aircraft in the 1950s. In 1959, he married the artist Jo Baer, and in the following year the couple moved to New York City. Wesley quickly became immersed in the nascent Pop art movement. He received his first one-man show relatively soon after his arrival in New York, at the Robert Elkon Gallery in 1963. This show earned him the respect of his fellow artists and critics alike; Minimalist sculptor and critic Donald Judd wrote him a particularly favorable review, and became a lifelong supporter of Wesley’s work. Inherently light-hearted, Wesley’s work proved to defy easy categorization into the typical “Pop” definition. His flat, heavily-outlined clear forms, almost colorbook-like, fit into the Pop aesthetic, but his subjects lacked the contemporary consumerist references or the mass-produced quality of Warhol or Lichtenstein. For this reason, he remained a neglected figure in contemporary criticism, despite the high regard in which he and his work were held. He began to receive greater recognition in the 1990s during a particularly productive period, and was the subject of two large retrospectives, the first at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens in 2000 and the second at the Venice Biennale in 2009.

1. Randy Kennedy, “Pop and Rococo Meet and Greet,” "The New York Times," June 9, 2009.
2. Dave Hickey, “Touche Boucher: John Wesley’s Gallant Subjects,” "Artforum International Magazine. "October 2000.