Jeffrey Wasserman: Forging a Singular Path in the 1980's

The painter Jeffrey Wasserman (1946–2006) spent his life’s work on the exploration of the properties and problems of painting. Artists and critics, in admiration of his steadfast commitment, called him a “painter’s painter”: a label that expresses Wasserman’s focused dedication to the medium and his complete disinterest in self-promotion. In the 1980’s, the art market ballooned, and, more and more, artists felt pressure to engage in strategy in their work – but Wasserman had no interest in this. He was immersed in the issues he saw on the canvas, and he kept his focus there, communicating as he did with painters he admired and ignoring the market forces and the pressure of the time. 

In the 1980’s, modern painting, especially modern abstract painting, was a loaded subject. A new generation of artists dissected, debated, and often dismissed modern painting’s failed utopian dreams and patriarchal undertones. Wasserman quietly navigated the center of this frenzied world, forging close relationships with a diverse range of artists from Peter Halley and Jeff Koons to Laurie Simmons and Holly Hughes, as well as critics such as Collins & Milazzo and Henry Geldzahler. All of these artists and critics were part of the new East Village scene, where there was an explosion of galleries. 

But Wasserman’s painting stood apart from most of his contemporaries. Abstract painting, Wasserman believed, had not come to an “end” (a popular declaration made by critics during the time). Rather, he felt passionately that painting still had the capacity to express something new. Beyond modern painting’s imbedded failures, Wasserman saw the medium’s enduring ability to speak to truth. 

Wasserman was a student of modernist painting. He had studied under a number of prominent post-war painters, including Friedel Dzubas, Francis Bacon, and, later, as an assistant to Edward Avedisian. He often alluded to art history in his work. Echoes of forms from Joan Miró and Giacomo Balla, Henri Matisse’s blue, and Hans Hoffman’s theories on color and composition exist throughout his painting. He explored this history with a sense of playfulness and humor, and avoided the irony and cynicism that filled the works of many of his fellow painters. 

This is not to say that the fervent atmosphere of glitz and grit of the East Village scene did not make an impression on Wasserman’s work in the 1980s. His techniques and colors drew from the energy of the neighborhood. He used quickly made stencils from wax paper to create abstract forms and build dynamic surface textures. Neon colors were sprayed, splattered, and often set into surprising opposition to forms in gold paint or flowing washes of his iconic shade of blue. “I use colors in an artificial way,” he said. “A lot of times they enter totally against what is going on in the painting.” Wasserman contained and balanced all of these competing elements with his technical mastery of paint. 

Though very much of this era, Wasserman’s abstract painting has a freshness that speaks to the present moment. His work expresses an emotion and skill that counteracts the pessimism and superficiality of our contemporary age, demonstrating again painting’s continuing power to speak, and to do so honestly.