On Vern Blosum At MoMA

“You cannot imagine how happy I was to read your email.”
That was the almost-immediate reply to my request to stop by MoMA’s Painting & Sculpture department to discuss Vern Blosum and to review the collection file for Time Expired, the 1962 parking meter painting the Museum acquired in early 1963, just as Pop Art was evolving.
When we met a couple of weeks later, Mattias, who managed P&S, told me that the Vern Blosum mystery had been nagging the department for years. And he wasn’t kidding.
Shortly after the painting came into the collection, questions and rumors arose about its creator. Which I’ll get to, but which were apparently answered well enough for Time Expired to go on view, and repeatedly, through the 1960s. As I mentioned last spring, as late as 1967, the NY Times was reporting on visitor questions which the museum would forward to the artists to be answered. Blosum replied that his parking meters formed “a series of time paintings culminating in a giant expiration.” Which strikes me as a very conceptual, 1967 thing to have painted back in 1962.
But that’s the last mention I’ve been able to find. It doesn’t appear that Time Expired has been shown at the Modern since the late 60s. And I expect that is because of unanswerable questions Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller had–and that their successors inherited–about Blosum’s identity and its implications for their painting. It turns out in 1973 the museum took the extraordinary, even unprecedented step, of searching the birth and Social Security records in Colorado around the time Blosum’s bio claimed he’d been born, trying to confirm that he existed. And when they couldn’t, the painting went into some kind of archival limbo, a cold case file, which would periodically resurface to perplex curators and interns and archivists.
Which is all kind of amazing, when you consider where the Blosum came from in the first place: Leo Castelli Gallery.

The invoice for Time Expired dates from February 1963, when the Modern would presumably have known that a similar Blosum painting would shortly appear in “The Popular Image,” the first East Coast museum show of Pop, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.
In April, Dorothy Miller sent a charmingly standard collection questionnaire to Blosum at a South Elgin, Illinois address Castelli had provided. [“He is 27 years old- noone has seen him,” wrote Constance Trimble, the gallery’s longtime employee.] The questionnaire went unanswered, and the complimentary collection artist pass, I assume, went unused. [I assume, because I’ve never asked Blosum about the Illinois address, but I know that he was actually in New York at the time.]
A year and a half later, after Time Expired had been exhibited in a new acquisitions show, and after Blosum did not attend an artists reception for the reopening of the newly expanded museum, Barr sent Castelli a frustrated note:

We are toiling on our collection catalogue and want, of course, to be as accurate as possible. Several innuendos and indeed some flat statements have led us to think that there is something phony about the identity of Vern Blosum. Would you please write me a letter signed by you giving some biographical data on the painter of Time Expired: full name (no pseudonym), sex, date and place of birth, art training, present address and any other information you may think relative [sic].
Hoax or no hoax, I like the painting which is now on view–but our catalogue is a serious record.
Yours seriously,
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

Yours seriously. I just noticed that.
About three weeks later [Oct. 14], Castelli replied:

Dear Alfred,
Enclosed herewith is a terse auto-biographical note that we just received from the elusive Vern Blosum. I hope it will prove to your satisfaction that he is not a phantom.

And the immediate reply [Oct. 16] was similarly addressed to “Dear Leo,” an indication of sorts of the extent to which the resolution of the Blosum question relied on Castelli’s relationship with Barr:

Though the autobiography of Vern Blosum would certainly not hold in court of law as evidence of his existence I suppose this is the best we can do to account for the legend that our picture was painted on a bet by a student at Pratt.

Time Expired continued to be exhibited at the museum. It’s not clear what prompted the fruitless 1973 inquiries to Colorado requesting a copy of a birth certificate for any Blosum. But at some point, I was told, Barr did let Castelli know that he was angry about Blosum’s pseudonym.
And i would imagine that having Alfred Barr pissed at you and your work would be a blow for any artist’s place in the history books.
Anyway, here is the text of the bio:

Vern Blosum
Born in Denver April 29, 1936
Parents died at early age, moved from relative to relative
First real job was running cars into Mexico for resale
Later became a used car salesman
No formal art training, learned all I know from a friend, who taught me the fundamentals and encouraged me to paint.
After five years of intensive work, I moved to South Elgin to be near my friend.
My hobbies are flying and reading. I had a plane but lost it when I decided to devote my full time to painting and couldn’t make the payments.

At the time of this MoMA archive discovery, the Castelli Gallery Papers were still being processed by the Archive of American Art. And so I had to wait for almost a year to find out that, except for a few 8×10 glossies, there were no files at all relating to Vern Blosum. And though Castelli sold several Blosum paintings to major collectors, he does not seem to have been officially affiliated with the gallery.
Looking back on MoMA’s Blosum acquisition now, two things strike me. The less intereresting one, perhaps, is the complicated dynamic of a museum collecting contemporary/emerging art. Blosum turns out not to have become Warhol, or even Rosenquist, or even Alex Hay. But would a museum that didn’t search out the experimental or unknown have bought three paintings out of Jasper Johns’ first show?
Of course, that’s not exactly what was happening, as Larry Aldrich, whose foundation fund was set up precisely so that MoMA’s curators could acquire works by unknowns like Blosum, admitted. Aldrich had set up the fund to get the museum’s curators “to sort of do my shopping for me,” he said. It was his impression that MoMA “had people combing New York galleries all the time,” but that was “not the case.”
In 1962-3, Pop was the new hotness, and MoMA bought because Castelli was selling. He was the one who had people–notably director Ivan Karp–combing, not galleries, but studios all the time, and that’s what Barr and Miller–and Aldrich–were relying on.
What’s more interesting to me is the implication of Barr’s questions about Blosum’s identity and intentions for painting Time Expired. In the Modern’s paradigm, whether he was perpetrating “a hoax” or painting on an art student’s bet, Blosum’s use of a psedonym was confirmation enough of his most serious crime: of not being “serious.”
Maybe in retrospect, when an ostensibly anonymous pair of artists show minimalist paintings supposedly created by the fictional artist character in a novel published under the name of a fictional artist/dealer created by another art collaborative. Or when MoMA PS1 commissions work from an anonymous collective named after a fictional artist’s foundation. Or when the Guerrilla Girls do anything. Blosum’s use of a pseudonym may be his most forward-looking gesture.