Philadelphia Wireman Opens at Fleisher/Ollman Tomorrow

A new exhibit at the Center City gallery features the work of an prominent—but unknown—artist

Photography courtesy of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery

Leave it to our weird city to have not just one but two prominent unknown artists. The first and most celebrated is the creator of the bizarre Toynbee tiles, the message-bearing plaques (“TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER”) that are asphalt-embedded around Center City and the subject of the documentary Resurrect Dead, which won at Sundance this year. But while strong theories exist as to who created the tiles, no one has a clue to the identity of our other anonymous artist, the prolific Philadelphia Wireman.

In 1982, an art student walking down an alley off South Street on trash night stumbled upon boxes and bags bursting with more than 1,000 twisted, crumbled, adorned webs of tightly bent wires wrapped around everything from a “Hill for Mayor” button to a radio tube to a syrup container. They were, he realized, not trash but works of art, and the art student and the majority of the pieces eventually found their way to John Ollman, of the venerable Fleisher/Ollman Gallery.

“It’s impossible to express how exciting it was to see these objects for the first time,” writes Ollman in the just-published monograph Philadelphia Wireman, which accompanies this month’s Wireman exhibition, which opens tomorrow. “Their raw, twisted metal, pierced with nails, immediately evoked power and magic.” Ollman and other scholars are all but positive that the Wireman was, in fact, a man, and probably African-American. Anyone out there want to claim his royalties?