At least this: they share a title, "the world's most famous unknown artist."
John Lennon is quoted as once describing Yoko Ono as, "the world's most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does." Of course, that was several decades ago. A 2015 New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective brings together over one hundred of her early objects, works on paper, installations, performances, audio recordings, and films, alongside rarely seen archival materials.
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) is considered one of the founding figures of the Pop art movement, known for his "Great American Nude" series and his "Smokers" series, disembodied presentations of hands and lips. “Painting, sex and humor are the most important things in my life,” Tom Wesselmann once said. In 2012 The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosted "Beyond Pop Art" a major retrospective of Wesselmann's work including a number of pieces that had never before been exhibited. In a lecture accompanying the exhibition, the curator, Stéphane Aquin introduced Wesselmann as “the world’s most famous unknown artist.”
David Weidman (1921-2014) produced whimsical silk-screen artwork and, while most prolific in the 60s and 70s as an animator and animation artist, he enjoyed a resurgence in interest when he was well into his 80s, including having his artwork adorn Urban Outfitters pillows and wall art. A July 2010 Los Angeles Times blog headline (Home Section) posited the question, "David Weidman, the Most Famous Unknown Artist?"
Ray Johnson (1927 - 1995) was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop art and founder of the mail art network. An August 2014 article in Vice Media bore the headline, "'New York's Most Famous Unknown Artist' Is Now More Important." This summer, MoMA dedicated a space to Johnson’s designs in their newly-opened research building and an October 2015 article in the Observer again touted his most famous unknown artist status.
Unknown is an adjective, a qualifier that means, well, duh, not known. Famous is its opposite, known by many people.
As an adjective, unknown can be intended and perceived in disparate, paradoxical ways. At one extreme its use is dismissive, connoting insignificance or unimportance. Or it might convey something more benign, such as obscurity or marginality. At its most positive, it can mean overlooked, as yet unheralded or unrecognized.
It’s a way of saying, if you don’t yet get that this artist is amazing, or if you haven't heard of him or her yet, you should, you will!
For Ono, Wesselmann, Weidman and Johnson it seems to have meant something slightly different in each case: shades-of-most-famous-unknown-artist-ness. Lennon's intent seems clear; that his wife was famous, but not for her own considerable accomplishments. Wesselmann is said to have been the only major artist of the Pop generation not honored with a museum retrospective in his lifetime; the moniker seeks to set the record straight. In Weidman's case, the article is about the fact that while many are familiar with the artist's cartoon characters and whimsical images (trees, birds and such), few associate his name with his work.
Johnson was an enigmatic figure in his lifetime. In later years, he purposefully receded from view, ceasing to exhibit or sell his work and in 1995 he was seen diving off a bridge and back stroking out to sea; his body washed to shore the following day. The most famous unknown artist assignation seems both sadly ironic and apt.
None of these artists is unknown, only, perhaps, less famous than someone thought they ought to be.
The truly unknown are, well, unknown.
Who would you add to the roster of most famous unknown artists?
Next week's post will explore Art with a History of Mystery, that vast (though surprisingly homogeneous) universe of anonymous art produced under the moniker “unknown artist” and also “various,” work that despite, or perhaps because of, its anonymity is readily available at reasonable cost at the likes of Target, Overstock.com and myriad other vendors of tasteful home furnishings.