The Mysterious Iconography of
Ed Paschke’s Eye Balk, 1969
by Aron Packer,
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers has had the privilege of offering several of Chicago artist Ed Paschke’s works over the years. In Art & Design on Thursday, December 2, 2021, an enigmatic oil on canvas by Paschke, entitled Eye Balk, 1969, was up for bid as Lot 59 with a $15,000-25,000 estimate and realized $43,750. This powerful work juxtaposes two of Paschke’s favorite pop cultural elements: sports and film, specifically, baseball and sci-fi/horror.
Deciphering the Visuals in Ed Paschke’s Eye Balk, 1969
A black background void of deep infinite space. A pastel blended suggestion of an oddly colored sky behind a disembodied upper half of a baseball player in a classic throwing position outlined in fluorescent green. Two four-leaf clovers floating in amoebic bubbles. At the lower third of the rectangle are three intimidating heads with an orange flashlight glow from below. And from the eyes of the repeated heads as well as from the eyes, mouth, and proper left ear of the baseball player, orange-yellow colored whips emanate and metaphorically connect. What to think about all of this? Let us dissect this painting by working backward, that is, examining its main components.
First of all, the baseball player is Vern Fuller from the Cleveland Indians. A Menomonie, Wisconsin native, Fuller attended Canoga Park High School near Los Angeles and then Cal State University, Northridge and Arizona State University before playing mostly second base and third base for the Indians from 1964 through 1970. Fuller was a light-hitting, part-time infielder who appeared in 325 games during his relatively brief career. It is something of a mystery why Paschke would have chosen to make Fuller the primary subject of one of his paintings. Known for repurposing imagery from pop culture in his work, Paschke based Eye Balk, 1969 in large part on Vern Fuller’s 1968 Topps baseball card.
Underneath the image of Fuller’s upper body, Paschke repeated three possessed heads of actor and wrestler Tor Johnson, best known for his role in director Ed Wood’s cult sci-fi/horror film, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), in which Johnson plays Inspector Daniel Clay. This classic B-movie also featured Bela Lugosi in his last role, Ghoul Man.
These visuals are classic Ed Paschke territory. He was known to have in his studio unkempt piles of imagery cut from pulp fiction, MAD magazine, girlie and sports magazines, and daily newspapers. This collecting of source material and imagery was common among the visual artists that Paschke eventually came to be associated with, the Chicago Imagists.
With Paschke’s major visual subjects chosen, these then form a skewed visual pyramid, which is a strong compositional device. Painting techniques and compositional choices have a way of taking over or directing a viewer’s experience.
Here I must diverge. A friend of the artist told me Paschke liked to break rules. One major rule a teacher told him is that no one should ever use black paint from a tube as a ground in a painting. For a period of time, Paschke went all out and backdropped his entire paintings in black. Paschke then found a black paint that would not reactivate when further paints were applied on top. That black was Rustoleum brand paint for the ground, which Paschke also used as under paintings on many works.
Another device Paschke’s friend mentioned was that he loved patterns and visual riddles. In other words, if something occurs once, it is an “incident,” twice a “coincidence,” and three times a “pattern.” This aesthetic trope applies to Eye Balk, 1969, which has one baseball player, two four-leaf clovers, and three faces. While this may be an interpretive stretch, there does seem to be a symbolic logic to the mysterious iconography present in this work.
Personal Brushes with Ed Paschke
Like his work, Ed Paschke the artist and man was hard to pin down. For me, he was a little intimidating. In my limited interaction with Paschke, he came across as an enigma and a closed book. I did not feel like I could get any answers if I asked him questions. He used to come into my eponymous gallery now and then. Most of all, I remember that Paschke often wore a gray trench coat, looking like an aloof noir character, and he occasionally chatted outside of my gallery with my father, an obsessive art collector and dealer. They were friendly acquaintances.
While discussing Paschke with an old friend of his and studio neighbor, I learned that Paschke was not so much intimidating, but generally shy. Rather than arrogant, he was actually one of the most humble people and artists in Chicago. Indeed, Paschke’s nickname was even “Mr. Chicago.” Ironically, though, his studio was at the end of the Red Line near the Howard Street ‘L’ station, under the tracks on the Evanston side.
Looking back, I was just pleased that Paschke showed up at my space and seemed to respect what I was doing. It was the early 1990s and I was so proud to say that he came to my gallery more than a few times over the years.
Ed Paschke’s Chicago Roots, Influences, and Artistic Style
Ed Paschke was born in 1939 and raised in a middle-class family on Chicago’s North Side and in its northern suburbs. Paschke, who was sometimes referred to as “Mr. Chicago,” is one of the city’s most beloved and recognizable artists. Along with Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, and Karl Wirsum, Paschke is considered a preeminent Chicago Imagist.
Paschke was interested in art from an early age and especially fascinated with comic books. Throughout his youth, he devoted himself to various creative pursuits. In 1961, he earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Throughout the 1960s, Paschke’s early work was heavily influenced by pop culture and mixed scenes from television, cartoons, magazines, tattoos, the circus, and even Mexican wrestling. By the 1970s, his palette had become increasingly neon and his subjects were generally lone figures floating over fields of solid color. Quite often, Paschke’s subjects in the 1970s and 1980s were street hustlers, burlesque dancers, and others at the margins of society in Chicago.
The Celebrated Legacy of Ed Paschke
During his own lifetime, Paschke was a local celebrity and recognized around Chicago at sporting events, bars, and restaurants. He passed away in 2004 from sudden heart failure.
One year after his death, a section of Monroe Street in downtown Chicago was named “Honorary Ed Paschke Way.” In 2014, the Ed Paschke Art Center opened on the North Side of Chicago to help preserve his artistic legacy.
Ed Paschke’s paintings are today in private collections and museums around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Illinois), the Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, New York), Musée D’Art Moderne Nationale (Paris, France), and Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, France).