Wesley Willis


“Wesley Willis” at Delmes & Zander, Berlin

For two decades until his death in 2003, keyboard rock star Wesley Willis unremittingly rendered Chicago’s dour Dan Ryan Expressway and curtain-walled skyline with ballpoint pen and felt-tip-marker lines so ecstatic, so fluorescent as to demand that established habits in representing late-twentieth-century American cities make way.

The twenty-six drawings in this show, nearly all from the 1980s, graze the surface of an oeuvre that by the artist’s own tally numbers forty thousand works. (Fact-checkers take heed: Willis, no record keeper, peddled the drawings on the street and at concerts.) A series of small untitled drawings in blue ink from 1982–83 depict big rigs, tractor trailers, rolling stock, and transit-authority buses in side and isometric views. Throughout, his years spent sitting in on drawing classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology—a beachhead for exiled Bauhauslers and a raft for the poor, precocious Southsider—are manifest in drafting techniques Willis never abandoned but, to singular effect, refused to master.

In Reagan’s urban America fat on fossil fuels and fast food, Willis divined—atop overpasses and train platforms, out of franchise storefronts—something akin to Futurist draftsman Antonio Sant’Elia’s 1914 New City, that vertiginous, infrastructure-crisscrossed ode to speed. In McDonald’s 51st & Wentworth, 1988, a work of apparent sedateness, Willis faintly superimposes the adjacent expressway on the drive-through, all beneath the burger chain’s Marinetti-worthy slogan “Billions and Billions Served.” Off in the distance is the Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, and a country hanging onto its pride in productivity and superiority for dear life.