Of all the alter egos invented by artists in the past 100 years or so, from R. Mutt to John Dogg, none, perhaps, is more mysterious or obscure than the fictional painter Vern Blosum. Blosum was the brainchild of a young abstractionist, newly graduated with an MFA from New York’s Hunter College and convinced of Clement Greenberg’s notions of progress in painting, of Pollock’s genius, and of the primacy of skill, passion, authorship and authenticity in art. Presciently, he could see the dangers presented to all of these things by the then-nascent Pop-art movement, with its emphasis on de-skilling, its dispassion and its apparently wholehearted collusion with a growing commercialization of culture. He decided he would create his own more-Pop-than-Pop artist as a way of exposing Pop’s shallownesss. And so Vern Blosum was born.
In his brief career (1961-64), Blosum garnered considerable success with his work, which largely consisted of delicately painted renderings of mundane public devices such as parking meters and pay phones, each with a line of descriptive text painted underneath. Telephone (1964) appeared in Lucy Lippard’s seminal 1966 book Pop Art. Castelli Gallery handled the work and placed it in important collections. For many years, one of Blosum’s parking-meter paintings hung in the Museum of Modern Art. It was quietly taken down in 1973 when the museum, which had long had its suspicions, was unable to confirm the artist had ever existed.
An exhibition at Essex Street gallery featured five 40-by-30-inch canvases from 1961. Each reproduces a flower (in the style of an illustrated field guide), along with a somewhat mawkish description—in wobbly serif type—of the flower’s habits. (“In late summer, streamsides are spangled with Boltonia, Boltonia asteroids,“ reads the text in one.) Uninflected, but not unpainterly, these works simultaneously recall Charles Burchfield’s visionary nature studies (particularly in the carefully rendered white hairs on the leaves and stem of a Rudbeckia hirta), Andy Warhol’s early commercial illustrations, and printed textiles and wallpaper patterns of the period.
Also included in the show were two rather more enigmatic paintings. One is an immaculate copy of the logo for Cat’s Paw-brand shoe heels with the words “PLANNED ANTICIPATION” painted in block letters below it. The other is a stylized depiction of a pigeon whose caption reads “PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE.” These texts could perhaps refer to Blosum’s idea that Pop art was, in the long run, unsustainable in its initial form. But it is also worth considering that both “cat’s-paw” and “pigeon” are slang terms for “dupe.”
The show closed with Blosum’s last painting, a 1964 image of a stop sign, the text underneath it reading “STOP,” made as MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr, was pressing Castelli for biographical data on the painter. And stop Blosum did, rather than reveal himself. (For now, the gallery is preserving the anonymity of his creator.)
Although conceived as a mockery, these “perfect” Pop paintings ironically have the force of conviction that Blosum felt Pop lacked. Together they form a modest but intriguing oeuvre that anticipates the self-reflexiveness and criticality of work by the likes of Marcel Broodthaers, John Baldessari (whose text paintings Blosum’s predate by several years) and the Pictures Generation artists. They seem now less Pop than early entries in the still-expanding field of post-Pop art.