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Idelle Weber, who stretched the meaning of pop art, dies at 88

Idelle Weber, at her Brooklyn studio in 1958.
Idelle Weber, at her Brooklyn studio in 1958.HOLLIS TAGGART/IDELLE WEBER estate

NEW YORK — Idelle Weber, an artist who cast a critical eye on midcentury American consumerism with pop art silhouettes of corporate workers and photorealist paintings of trash, died on March 23 in Los Angeles. She was 88.

She had been in an assisted living facility, according to her daughter, Suzanne, who confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

A painter who experimented with sculpture and collage, Ms. Weber was one of the few women involved in the pop movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She used brightly colored and patterned backdrops to highlight her anonymous, black-and-white figures of businessmen and brides, politicians and television-show characters — all appearing in arrested motion.

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Her bold, flat aesthetic fit into the pop category, but her subject matter was different than Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up comics.

Ms. Weber was interested in how consumer culture codified social roles. For example, the couple in the painting “Bride and Groom” (1963–64) step into their future against a shade of blue that alludes to the luxury jeweler Tiffany’s.

Her work “expanded the notion of what ‘Pop’ could be,” wrote Sid Sachs, the director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, in a catalog for a show of Ms. Weber’s work at Hollis Taggart gallery in New York in 2013.

She achieved success despite the hurdles she faced as a woman in a largely male milieu. In 1957, for example, she tried to audit a class that was taught by the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell. She went to see him with her portfolio, which he looked at approvingly. He then asked if she was planning to marry and have children, to which she responded yes.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘It’s too bad, you’ll never keep working,’ ” she was quoted as saying in Sachs’ catalog. “And he didn’t let me in the class.”

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Motherwell was wrong: Weber got married, had children and kept working.

In the 1970s, she pivoted from pop to photorealism by painting close-ups of New York City food stalls and piles of trash. She went on to make tightly cropped details of gardens and patches of grass, before segueing to more expressionistic landscapes in dark tones.

By 2000, Ms. Weber was known primarily as a realist, and her pop work was largely forgotten. It was only about 2010, when Sachs curated the critically acclaimed exhibition “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” (originally titled “Beyond the Surface: Women and Pop Art 1958-1968”) that her early breakthroughs were rediscovered, once more hitting a cultural chord.

Older pieces that she had kept in storage were bought by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which displayed its acquisition when it reopened last fall. Onlookers even speculated that the silhouetted imagery in the opening credits of the TV series “Mad Men” were based on her work. (Despite the visual similarities, they weren’t.)

Ms. Weber’s art “perfectly captured a certain spirit in popular culture when it was being made, such that it became emblematic of that moment again,” Cathleen Chaffee, chief curator of the Albright-Knox Gallery, said in an interview.

“She is an example of the experience that a lot of women artists went through, if they lived long enough to see the cycles of celebrity and fame, obliteration and forgetfulness, and then rediscovery and celebrity,” Chaffee added.

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She was born Tessie Pasternack on March 12, 1932. Her father put her up for adoption after her mother died in childbirth. Her new parents, Julius Earl Feinberg, who worked in real estate, and Minnie (Wallach) Feinberg, a homemaker who had previously lived abroad, gave her the name Idelle Lois Feinberg.

From their house in Wilmette, Ill., north of Chicago, Minnie would take Idelle to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they would look at miniature period rooms, works by Edward Hopper, and more.

Idelle took to drawing at an early age, and her parents encouraged her by enrolling her in art classes.

When she was 8, the family moved to Beverly Hills, Calif., settling in as neighbors to Elizabeth Taylor.

As a teenager, she began frequenting the gallery of the dealer Frank Perls, who arranged for her to visit the private art collections of movie stars Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.

Ms. Weber attended Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., for a year before transferring to the University of California Los Angeles, where she received her bachelor’s degree in art in 1954 and her master’s in it the next year.

In 1956, one of her pieces was accepted into the open-call exhibition “Recent Drawings USA” at the Museum of Modern Art. (The collector Gertrude Mellon bought it.) Traveling to see the exhibition, Ms. Weber wound up staying in New York City for almost the rest of her life. Within her first few days there she baby-sat for Mark Rothko’s daughter and met her future husband, Julian Weber, a lawyer who went on to be president of the humor magazine National Lampoon.

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The couple married nine months later, in 1957. Julian Weber died in 2006.

Idelle Weber leaves two children, J. Todd and Suzanne, and three grandchildren.

Her husband’s job as a corporate lawyer and the skyscrapers in her new home city inspired much of Ms. Weber’s most noted work.

“I was just amazed, you know, because they had fluorescent lights and men in business suits, but you saw only the silhouettes of these people at any hour,” she said in a documentary film accompanying the “Seductive Subversion” exhibition.

“And all those buildings had giant escalators. You’d see these people coming down after work or going up at the beginning of the day, and I really loved it.”