Jeffrey Wasserman: Influence Past and Present

The New Dawn, 1988

The New Dawn, 1988

Oil on canvas • 58 x 50 in.

The work of Jeffrey Wasserman is remarkable for its ability to speak to the history of painting.

Wasserman was a devoted student of art history. At the age of five, he discovered on his parents’ bookshelves Rene Huyghe’s Art Treasures of the Louvre, and this sparked a lifelong love of painting. As he studied painting as a young adult, he developed a deep commitment to the exploration of the many issues that surround the medium. His embrace of color stemmed, in part, from his love of nineteenth-century Romanticism and the vibrant paintings of Eugène Delacroix. In the early 1990s, when he moved from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley, he became even more deeply engaged with landscape, spurred by his longstanding affinity for the Hudson River School painters. In his paintings of the 90’s, rolling hills, cool rivers, harsh schist, and glittering twilight lie faintly behind washes of blues, orange-reds, rich yellows, and earthy greens. The Hudson River Valley transformed into a new sublime – Thomas Cole with spray paint and palette knife.

When he was very young, Wasserman studied with the Color Field painter Friedel Dzubas. Later, when he moved to Manhattan at the age of twenty-one, he worked for the abstract artist Edward Avedisian. These important artists introduced him to the dominant figures of modernism. What followed was a life-long interest in the playful reimagination of modernism. Paul Klee’s Morocco paintings, Mark Rothko’s colored hazes, Henri Matisse’s cutouts all informed the structure of Wasserman’s compositions and the cast of abstract characters that occupy them. His understanding of color, too, came from his appreciation of Hans Hoffman’s theories of optical projection and recession; and from the writings of Piet Mondrian. And then there is Wasserman’s blue. It speaks to the long history of the color blue in modernism; yet his blue is wholly idiosyncratic. It is more saturated than the blues of Joan Miró, thinner and more fluid than that of Yves Klein.

Wasserman was at the forefront of the art world in New York, at first absorbing the electricity of the burgeoning SoHo loft scene in the 1970s. His abstract compositions from this period are in clear dialogue with a broader movement of New York-based, late-modernist artists such as Elizabeth Murray and Philip Guston. Later, in the following decade, the esoteric figures and gestural application of paint that appear in Wasserman’s work hold an affinity with Neo-Expressionist painters such as Susan Rothenberg. Meanwhile, his interest in Surrealism found echoes in the works of Carroll Dunham and Lydia Dona.

It is interesting to note Wasserman shared an interest in the investigation of modern painting with many of his post-modernist contemporaries, such as Jeff Koons and Peter Halley, but without their sense of irony. Stephen Westfall noted: “[This ironic] smirk is noticeably absent from Wasserman’s work. You sense his sheer delight in manipulating radiatingly associative color, stylized imagery, and a historically loaded clash of materials.”

Today, we can see how this “sheer delight” that Wasserman expressed prefigures our own moment in painting. Artists such as Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, and Dana Schutz mine longstanding motifs of modernist painting to create highly personal works. Their painting exudes the same humor, playfulness, and, at the same time, seriousness that Wasserman’s work did three decades earlier. Wasserman had a masterful ability to experiment with the language of painting and its history, and to do so with joy and sincerity. His paintings are timeless and deeply rewarding, instilled with an incredible sense of this very moment.