Hello Pretty "Yellow Lady": Shedding Light on an Ed Paschke Painting

Well before Matt Groening’s Marge Simpson character became pop icon, artist Ed Paschke (1939–2004) created his own version of a Yellow Lady in 1969. In the same way that the bizarre appearances and situations as depicted in “The Simpsons” comment on pop culture, Paschke’s manipulations of mass media aim to do the same. The technicolor tones and flat background aim to dissociate the woman from her body and her surroundings; the addition of the admiring man takes on the role of the consumer and the viewer, aiming to make the voyeur uncomfortable.

While only minor conservation was needed for this vibrant painting, the private collector knew very little about its history, causing us to reach out to the Ed Paschke Foundation and even the artist’s daughter, Sharon Paschke. Neither was familiar of the piece’s existence, and Sharon, especially, was excited to see a new example of her father’s early work. In order to discover more about this very special Yellow Lady, we studied the canvas under ultraviolet light and found some surprising details. With these new findings, The Conservation Center was able to shed new light on this painting for its owner as well as the Paschke family. 

Ed Paschke was a Polish-American painter who was born right here in Chicago. From a young age, Paschke fostered a growing interest in the arts, stemming from an early fascination in comics and cartoons. Earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Paschke studied painting at the height of the Imagists movement in the 1950s. The Imagists were segregated from the artistic trends in New York and focused on grotesque and surreal motifs, combined with a highly internalized view of pop culture and the absurd. While Paschke was trained on the principles of abstraction and expressionism, his work tends to be more focused on representational imagery. His exposure to the Art Institute’s permanent collection, especially the works of Picasso, Gauguin, and Seurat, heavily influenced his oeuvre. 

In 1962, in between receiving his degrees, Paschke was drafted into the army, where he created illustrations, publications, and signs for the education of incoming troops. He continued to support himself as a commercial artist while simultaneously developing his own artistic style. Exposed to the Pop Art movement, his works included stylized versions of borrowed media, with themes of violence, aggression, and physical incongruity to produce an image all his own. Paschke was concerned with how the media stylized the experience of reality, so he tried to confront and challenge the way in which viewers comprehend mass media. However, unlike Pop Art, where the artist would subjugate the media to the anti-personal, the Imagists worked to do the exact opposite. 

Though little is known about this 1969 painting itself, Paschke’s work around this time might lend insight into his original intent. In pieces such as Pink Lady (1970) and Painted Lady (1971), iconic depictions of cultural figures are turned into images fabricated by Paschke to remove the subject from its original context while forcing the viewer to perceive the media icons in a completely different manner. Paschke’s logic behind these images was to highlight America’s more seedier values, including fame, violence, sex, and money. The voyeurism apparent in Yellow Lady seems to complement this intent.

The piece came to The Conservation Center because the private collector noticed fogginess on the inside of the glazing in the shape of the figures that was obscuring his view of the work. When the work was unframed in our laboratory, it was patently evident that the painting was off-gassing onto the glazing. This is partially due to the frame not being deep enough, thus forcing the painting to come into contact with the glazing.

To better allow Yellow Lady to be visible and to avoid having to routinely un-frame and handle the piece (thus avoiding putting it at risk of damage), our Head of the Conservation Framing Department, Toby Joyce, came up with a solution. He suggested replacing the current frame with a deeper one that would allow room for spacers, which would in turn distance the painting from the glazing. This treatment will allow the collector to better protect his piece and keep his view of the work unobstructed.

Before completing work on the framing, however, our Senior Paintings Conservator, Amber Smith, examined Yellow Lady under a black light to reveal some interesting findings. The UV analysis showed areas of varying fluorescence, uncommon on a single-media painting.  Upon speaking with Sharon Paschke about her father’s methods at the time, our best conclusion is that two different types of paint were used to complete this piece. The background, or bottom layer of paint, seems to be either an acrylic-based paint or a thinned oil paint.

The areas that appear much darker under black-light, most notably on the arms and legs of the figures, seem to be painted with a much heavier, thicker paint, with added materials. This collaboration between The Center and experts in the field gives us a better understanding of the process used by Ed Paschke to execute this painting. This type of information can be instrumental to art historians and collectors.

Even more astounding, the UV analysis also exposed what seems to be a face in the lower left corner of the painting. This original image was also probably painted with the heavier, thicker paint, and so it fluoresces through the background color under a black light. In this way, we can trace Paschke’s aesthetic considerations as he was approaching this blank canvas, as he ultimately decided to cover up this mysterious floating face. 

UV Face.jpg

Without testing the paints further, we cannot know for certain whether the conclusions we have drawn are correct, but based on the information gathered we are confident in our speculations. For our conservators and for our clients, it is always  fulfilling when the treatment process can shed light on the history of the piece itself.  It is these kinds of discoveries that encourage us to always take further steps into the research and care of an object when they come to us here at The Conservation Center.