I never had the chance to meet Jerry Wilkerson, but I think I would have liked him.
A well-known figure in the Central West End, Wilkerson died last spring, ending a lifelong visual art career. A 37-year retrospective of his work, which was a curious mix of Warholian pop art and impressionism, is currently on display at the St. Louis University Museum of Art.
Recently I visited the exhibition with his widow Gail. When she called me up and volunteered to be my tour guide through the show, I didn’t know what to expect, either of his work or her demeanor: Would she have difficulty talking about certain pieces in the show? And, God forbit, what would happen if I didn’t like her husband’s work?
Turns out that neither one was a problem. Of the 88 works on display a the museum, I would happily display perhaps 85 of them in my home (although I can’t really pinpoint which three would be left out). Jerry’s dotted paintings of bananas, cherries, hot dogs and lobsters, as well as his towers of Fig Newtons and pizza-printed quilts, have a whimsical yet elegant feel to them that really appeal to me.
And Gail obviously loves talking about her late husband’s work; throughout our visit, she regaled me with tales of scouring grocery stores and farmers’ markets for the food he painted and helping him create cookie ornaments for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual Christmas tree decorating (a particularly disgusting task that involved mashing up plain white bread with Elmer’s glue and painting the results brown before baking them in the oven).
“[Visiting the show] makes me feel very happy and amazed. I’ve been through this exhibit countless times, and every time I’m still amazed at the new things I see,” she said. “I’m very proud of Jerry and the body of work he created.”
One painting, an incredibly realistic rendering of a garlic braid, evoked a laugh from Gail as she remembered how Jerry had enlisted the help of Gail’s father and sister (both of whom lived just outside New York City) to find a braid, on the assumption that such an item would be easier to locate there than it would be in St. Louis. After months of searching in vain, Gail and Jerry stumbled across the perfect garlic brain themselves — at the Straub’s in the Central West End.
Several such memories came flooding back to Gail as she started preparing for this exhibit late last year, sifting through Jerry’s files and artwork and attempting to decipher his codes and sorting techniques, which she described as “quite organized but only to Jerry.”
Once she had the figured out, she began contacting collectors in the hopes of borrowing works for the show; some of those she tracked down, she hadn’t seen since Jerry created them years ago, including the aforementioned garlic painting.
“It’s like seeing old friends. I get a very warm feeling inside” seeing them, she said.
Walking through the exhibit with Gail, I got a great sense of how Jerry’s artwork evolved over the years, from larger dots over flat-painted backgrounds to more detailed paintings with much smaller dots to elaborate quilts created from his original images.
While I certainly would have picked up on the phases of Jerry’s career (obviously the quilts all go together, as do the “refrigerator still lifes”), I don’t know that such an evolution would have been apparent had I walked through on my own; Gail’s route took us criss-crossing the exhibit to see things chronologically, whereas I would have just picked a wall and worked my way around.
I was a great way to see the show and it certainly opened my eyes to some images that I may have missed on my own, like the small painting of a blueberry muffin sitting alone in a field. The painting is tucked away all by itself on a thin bit of wall, and could easily be missed due to the huge stack of Fig Newtons the size of hardcover books sitting nearby.
But in that one painting, which poked fun at Monet’s Haystack series, I was able to see Jerry’s fantastic sense of humor. It’s obviously an in-joke for the art crowd, but in referencing something so well known, it’s just as obvious that Jerry wanted everyone to get it.
So perhaps I’d better amend my previous statement: I never got the chance to meet Jerry Wilkerson, but I know I would have liked him.
Discerning Palette: Jerry O. Wilkerson Retrospective is on display at the St. Louis University Museum of Art through Aug. 17. For more information call 977-26666 or visit sluma.slu.edu.