The first retrospective in 30 years devoted to Andrew Wyeth is a sign of increasing interest in the artist on the part of critics and curators. And it may help answer a perennial question: how good a painter is he?.
While one critic has dubbed Andrew Wyeth “the greatest living kitschmeister,” others compare him with such 20th-century masters as Edward Hopper or the Abstract Expressionists. Some think he is a hopelessly sentimental painter of rural scenes and people, while others admire the “artfulness” with which he manipulates his seemingly familiar subjects. One critic says that Wyeth avoids reality, while another asserts that he deals with the most profound themes.
Debates about Wyeth’s place in American art haven’t depressed his popularity. His works continue to inspire countless imitators and fetch hefty prices (last May, his 1987 painting Battle Ensign commanded $3.8 million from an anonymous buyer at Sotheby’s). They have regularly been featured in blockbuster exhibitions at major institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum among them—but, despite his widespread appeal, he has not been granted a full-scale retrospective in some 30 years, a period during which the 88-year-old artist has painted prolifically and in which the art world has veered toward a more pluralistic stance.
“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic,” opening next month at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art (November 12, 2005–February 26, 2006) and then traveling to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reflects an increasing interest among curators, critics, and artists in examining the breadth of Wyeth’s work from a contemporary perspective, distanced from both the modernist position from which Wyeth has often been measured and his own solitary, nearly cultlike image. “There has been this notion that if you’ve seen one Wyeth, you’ve seen them all—that Wyeth is not a complicated artist,” says Anne Classen Knutson, a curator at the High Museum and one of the show’s organizers. “In fact, he is. Wyeth uses a secret language of symbols to work through personal issues—memory, loss, mortality, timelessness. Like Picasso, his iconography has evolved.” Knutson points to Wind from the Sea, an image of a half-open window with sheer curtains dancing in a breeze, from 1947, when Wyeth, she says, “was catching his stride.” She compares it with Renfield, painted in 1999, which also features a window—but this one is shut, imparting “a claustrophobic, immobile feeling.”
Wyeth, the youngest child of the celebrated illustrator N. C. Wyeth, received all of his formal training in his father’s studio, where he developed a dual, albeit contradictory, love for fantasy and the observed. By 1936 his watercolor land- and seascapes were attracting critical attention, and the following year he sold out his first one-man show, at New York’s William MacBeth Gallery. In the early 1940s, Wyeth started experimenting with egg tempera, using a dry-brush technique, and landed several works in the 1943 “American Realists and Magic Realists” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Shortly thereafter, in 1945, his father and his three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled at a railroad crossing, prompting Wyeth to adopt a more somber palette and to choose subjects that reflected his feelings of loss.
While the objects and scenery in Wyeth’s paintings seem familiar, especially to those who have visited the rural communities outside Philadelphia and along the Maine coast where the Wyeths summered, their meaning is elusive.
“People think Wyeth’s paintings are journalistic. They say, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s just a view outside his house.’ They don’t realize how the works have been manipulated—that they’re artificial, artful,” notes Kathleen Foster, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who worked on the “Memory and Magic” show.
“‘Realism’ is a tricky word,” adds Linda Ferber, former head of the American art department at the Brooklyn Museum and recently appointed vice president and director of the museum division of the New-York Historical Society. “There is an interesting sense of dislocation in Wyeth’s works. You think the question is being answered, but it’s really being asked. They are like ‘problem pictures,’ a late-19th-century British tradition in which a narrative is set up but left open. You bring your own story to it. There is no pictorial resolution.”
According to Robert Storr, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Wyeth’s popularity today owes much to his efforts to avoid the real world. “In our very conservative political climate, he gives people a place to hide. It is a very contrived version of what is true about simple Americans,” Storr says, “and I don’t know any simple Americans.” Describing Wyeth’s “particular flavor of sentimentality” as “dry, high WASP,” Storr maintains that “it is a pinched version of what the world could be. I was born in Maine. I know these people and I know. Nothing about Wyeth is honest. He always goes back to that manicured desolation.” Independent curator and critic Dave Hickey, who has described Wyeth’s palette as “mud and baby poop,” agrees. “People like to be reassured that boredom is to be celebrated,” he quips. “Wyeth’s bourgeois melancholy validates failure and despair.”
Among those who see Wyeth very differently is Robert Rosenblum. Noting that Wyeth is hardly the first American artist to practice rural typecasting (Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry are others), Rosenblum, a professor of fine arts at New York University and curator of 20th-century art at the Guggenheim Museum, takes pleasure in Wyeth’s brand of sentimentality. “It may be fake and theatrical, but it works for me,” says Rosenblum, who considers the artist’s images “very poignant,” capturing “a last gasp of 19th-century rural life.” To Rosenblum, at least, “high WASP” seems exotic.
Foster dismisses the notion that Wyeth’s work is doused with sentimentality. “Meditating on the transitory nature of the world and people in it doesn’t seem like a lightweight subject to me,” she says.
It is not primarily Wyeth’s subject matter to which Storr objects, however. “He’s so averse to color, to allowing real air—the breath of nature—into his pictures,” Storr says. “I don’t like how his art keeps us away from experience rather than brings us to it.”
But John Wilmerding, former curator and deputy director of the National Gallery of Art and presently a professor of American art at Princeton University, contends in the introduction to the “Memory and Magic” catalogue (Rizzoli) that we often overlook in his paintings two elements that seem contrary to realism but are “powerfully modern in their character—Wyeth’s sense of the psychological and the abstract.”
Wilmerding writes that the abstraction in such landscapes as River Cove (1958) and Thin Ice (1969) “has a striking parallel in the art of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly the near-contemporary work of Mark Rothko and Franz Kline.” According to Knutson, Wyeth himself has repeatedly expressed an appreciation for Rothko and de Kooning. Nonetheless, says Foster, “the writers of the 1950s who were defending abstraction needed a poster boy for the opposition.” By 1965 Wyeth had gone from being a promising talent in the art world, to vying with Jackson Pollock for the title of America’s most important artist, to being dismissed, and even vilified.
As he got older, Wyeth became somewhat r
eclusive, and, according to Storr, “no one has manipulated withdrawal from the world more successfully.” He points out the way that the artist, who lives and works in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, has managed to portray himself as being aloof from the tawdriness of the art world. Yet, at the same time, he has profited enormously from the reproduction of his images, a business largely controlled by his wife, Betsy.
Wyeth’s detachment and his desire to remain anonymous (he declined to be interviewed) have manifested themselves in his painting practice. He has developed an unusual relationship with many of his neighbors, wandering in and out of their homes unannounced to observe and paint them. “Wyeth doesn’t like his models to look at him,” says Knutson, “because it reminds him of himself.”
The artist’s penchant for secrecy helped galvanize attention in 1986, when a series of portraits, many nude, of his neighbor Helga Testorf, which he had painted over the course of some 15 years, were revealed to the art world—and to his wife. Intimations of an affair landed the paintings of Helga on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and the entire group was reportedly bought for more than $10 million by a single collector. “It was so seductive,” says Knutson. “‘Did he or didn’t he?’ clouded everything.”
“The phenomenon made it hard to just look at the work,” says Foster, who, with her cocurators, has included a number of Helga pictures in the “Memory and Magic” show.
Hickey sees Wyeth’s works as “a kind of painting that lends itself very well to illustration. The actual paintings,” he says, “look dead as a board. They look better on paper than in person, which is not a high recommendation for an artist.” Comparing Wyeth with Norman Rockwell, whose images of old New England have also been elevated to iconic status, Hickey says, “Rockwell was not pretentious. He didn’t pretend to be anything else.”
Ferber, for one, argues that Wyeth’s imagery does not fall within the category of illustration. “The text is internal. As an illustrator, your work is in service to others,” she says. One critic wrote in an ARTnews review of the “American Realists and Magic Realists” exhibition: “Precision is there, perhaps even more sharply than in the hands of some other practitioners, but poetry of content and of unconventional color comes first and the camera tricks are secondary.”
The narrowness of Wyeth’s subject matter has been yet another sticking point with his critics. Rosenblum answers that “Monet, Rothko, Mondrian all painted the same things” throughout their careers. He also points out that Wyeth’s regionalist themes may be more universal than imagined. “I recently did a lot of work on Scandinavian art, and there were many 19th-century Danish paintings of bleak, dry country scenes with one house and one person,” he says.
Edward Hopper, with whom Wyeth is often compared as a painter of loneliness and everyday life, “used to be considered, if not the enemy, then provincial, with no international cachet,” says Rosenblum. “Today he is adored by both Europeans and Americans.” Some critics, including Hickey and Storr, don’t feel that Wyeth will ever attract a similar level of enthusiasm among the cognoscenti. “Hopper is a hundred times better,” says Hickey, citing “his cinematic cropping, his emotional plunge.”
Storr calls Hopper “an extraordinary painter of ordinariness,” a sobriquet of which he clearly considers Wyeth undeserving. “Wyeth is an artist of enormous technical skill,” he admits, “but he’s never developed as an artist. He looks like a painter of high seriousness, with all the trappings of Old Master painting. But his pictures—though there may be some I haven’t seen—as a whole have the same set of rules. They have no insight, no daring. He would be good if he looked at his world not just to stylize it.”
Many of the 100 paintings, watercolors, and drawings comprising the “Memory and Magic” exhibition have never been shown publicly, or have been revealed only to small local audiences. Notable among them is a tempera that is poignantly, if not sardonically, titled Otherworld. In this painting from 2002, Wyeth, who had never since his father’s death incorporated any modern invention into his work, depicts his wife, Betsy, inside a corporate jet looking out one of the plane’s windows, which offer views of both his beloved Chadd’s Ford and Cushing, Maine.
While Rosenblum believes that in the past some critics have been “ridiculously haughty” about those who admire Wyeth’s work—“If you did, they’d think you were either insane or pandering to the populace,” he says—today we can “put all of these polemics behind us.” Ferber agrees that it is time that scholars “take off the blinders and give Wyeth a long, hard look. Abstraction has been our vocabulary,” she says, “but we grow up. Nostalgia is not a dirty word. Rockwell is cool.” Storr, on the other hand, sticks to his belief that there is no reason to be gentle with Wyeth. “He’s had every opportunity in terms of talent and support,” he says. “There’s been nothing standing in the way of his making a big statement, and only his unchanging mannerisms and his unresponsive persona stand in the way of giving a fuller, richer account of reality.”
“Wyeth has had a long and prolific life,” says Knutson. “You can’t hit it every time.”