A Retrospective of Andrew Wyeth, a Painter Both Loved and Loathed

In Chadds Ford, at the Brandywine River Museum, a comprehensive exhibition on Andrew Wyeth has the potential to inspire or disgust, weary or delight.

Andrew Wyeth, “Anna Christina” (1967) tempera on panel, 21 ½ x 23 ½ in. jointly owned by the Brandywine River Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, anonymous gifts, 2002 (© 2017 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS))

CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Riddle me this: Is the Whitney Biennial a real Whitney Biennial if it goes without protest? In 1960, back when the exhibition was held annually, Edward Hopper urged Andrew Wyeth to sign his letter protesting the near exclusion of realist painting. The artist declined, distancing himself from the New York art world’s socio-political arguments, content with what was in front of him, like Giorgio Morandi with his bottles. Yet, from the late ’60s on, Wyeth would be labeled a reactionary — which is rather like taking issue with a rock for not taking issue with you — and conservative, overlooking John F. Kennedy honoring him in 1963 with a Medal of Freedom for depicting “verities and delights of everyday life” in the “great humanist tradition.”  To this day his East Coast critics spend a surprising amount of energy dismissing his relevance.

Jerry Saltz’s 2009 obituary on Wyeth begins by claiming “almost no one in the art world ever thought of or cared much about [him]” thereby slighting Alfred Barr, Elaine de Kooning, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for starters. More, Robert Hughes did a 180 switch, lauding the painter after his death. “[I]n over three decades in the art world, I have never heard one artist, art student, teacher, critic, collector, or curator mention his name,” Saltz goes on. One wonders whether he missed his wife Roberta Smith’s 1998 New York Times review “New Light on Wyeth’s Outer and Inner Landscapes” on Wyeth’s Whitney Museum show. Was he also completely unaware of photographer Collier Schorr’s obsession with Wyeth’s Helga pictures? “Wyeth was considered so conservative,” Saltz continues, “that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined an offer to exhibit his work.” No. The first one-person exhibition the Met ever gave to a living American artist was “Two World’s of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons” curated by director Thomas Hoving in 1976, previewed by Grace Glueck and reviewed by Hilton Kramer in The New York Times, where more argument ensued. 

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw doesn’t ignore art history in her recent piece “Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s present retrospective on the painter; she rewrites it. It’s not apparent she saw her claimed point of departure: the 2001 “Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends” exhibition of seventy-four works he made of his African-American friends and neighbors over a seventy-year span. But in Shaw’s retelling, Wyeth is a racist oppressor who exploited poor blacks for his own artistic ends. “My issue is more with my field, rather than with the paintings,” Ted Loos cites her as saying, which implies a personal agenda guiding her efforts. It’s helpful to understand this motive, because doing so gives context to the reliably derogatory insinuations and defamatory takes on Wyeth and his art — all free of responsible research.

Andrew Wyeth, “Pentecost” (1989) tempera with pencil on panel, 20 ¾ x 30 5/8 in., private collection (© 2017 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS))

Shaw makes much of Wyeth’s lifelong black friend and frequent model David Lawrence’s nickname “Doo-Doo,” (which the Wyeth family spelled “Dodo”) to insinuate Wyeth gave him this disparaging moniker. Unmentioned is who dubbed him this — Dodo’s cousin, mom, the mailman? — and that it was only decades later (in the 1950s) “doo-doo” picked up its scatological connotations. So, for the record, Wyeth did not in fact call his best friend “shit.” But Shaw did substantially misrepresent two people’s lives by getting the etymology of six letters wrong. It may seem trivial to address this, but one must select examples of her speculative trivialities when their accumulation is the whole of her piece. [NB: Professor Shaw asserts that she has taken the spelling of Lawrence’s nickname “Doo-Doo” from Richard Meryman’s 1998 authorized biography of Wyeth. Both the origin, spelling, and import of the moniker are contested, but Shaw’s choice is a principled one.]

Shaw holds up Senna Moore as the most artistically violated of his models, especially in “Dryad” (2000/2007), where the painter darkens her skin to envelop her within a tree’s shadow. (Dryads are mythological beings that live inside trees.) The incurious takeaway is, in Wyeth’s paintings, “black bodies could be eliminated entirely.” Despite her simplistic reading, Shaw indicates no knowledge that Senna Moore is actually alive — and perhaps available for an interview (as is a male model). In opting out of this exchange, to quote the writer’s own words, Shaw “eliminated entirely” the very black female voice she arrogated herself to speak on behalf of. Knowing none of Wyeth’s models or the artist, Shaw could, to recall her accusation, “exert a great deal of control over how [s]he imagined them.” [NB: Subsequent to this article being posted Professor Shaw contacted Hyperallergic and told us that she had indeed reached out to Senna Moore, but did not receive a reply. We apologize for this erroneous assumption.]

Andrew Wyeth painting “Vivian”; still from Andrew Wyeth: Self-Portrait (Snow Hill), directed by Bo Bartlett

In Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania over 100 works by Andrew Wyeth are on display at the Brandywine for Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, a comprehensive exhibition covering works from 1936 to his last in 2008, titled “Goodbye.” An agrarian in an age of war, living “farm to table” in contemporary parlance, his subjects — neighbors, the fields, woods, and streams, dilapidated houses, interiors mixed with still lifes, scandalizing nudes, shorelines, boats, and boots — have potential to inspire and disgust, weary and delight, according to the viewer and often the era’s politics.

Were Wyeth not so beloved by the general public, it’s unlikely the critics — mostly writing in the popular press — would have been so committed to scorning him. The policing of borders separating fine art from illustration was first-order, boring business for critics whose opinions on Wyeth were evidently ignored, if they registered at all with collectors and postcard-buyers alike. Surveys conducted in 1973 and 2006, years bookending Wyeth’s most tarred and feathered moments in the press, evidenced no alteration in the museum-going public’s approval: 86% for “enjoyment” of his paintings, according to exhibition exit polls by Wanda M. Corn and Lynda M. O’Leary. Wyeth sought to make images widely intelligible and by succeeding in that, rendered third-party mediation largely irrelevant, surely a sore spot for professional mouthpieces of taste. This meant authoritative interpretation of his art was his own, exemplified by Thomas Hoving’s choice to interview the artist for the 1976 exhibition catalogue, rather than commission essays. 

Wyeth, elsewhere, writes: “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people [I know].

Andrew Wyeth, “Chester County” (1962) dry brush watercolor on paper, 22 ½ x 30 ¾ in., collection of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Fowler; (©2017 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS))

This quote is slightly revolting in its sentimentality. We rid ourselves of softer emotions in 20th-century art. But “deep love” is not saccharine if we imagine that Wyeth had been a poet, novelist, or essayist. Think of beauty, for example.

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”

Okay, that one’s by Toni Morrison. See? It’s nice. It’s a literary attitude, perhaps, that’s needed to enter the world of Andrew Wyeth, which is not to say it’s easy. Francis Weiss, in the academic reader Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, posits Robert Frost as akin to Wyeth in artistic aim. “You and I have something in common,” Frost wrote Wyeth, “that almost makes me one wonder if we hadn’t influenced each other, been brought up in the same family.” They both aimed their art at the common viewer, eschewing urbane tastes, crafting work within a familiar tradition.

Despite the criticism claiming Wyeth’s weathered pastorals were escapist, the works are, like Frost’s poems, a space for darker dreaming and experiencing alienation, isolation, and a distinctly 20th-century form of anxiety. “At its most aesthetically convincing,” Donald Kuspit holds, “Wyeth’s art brings us to consciousness of the body’s existence — bodiliness as such, bodiliness as the essence of existence.” This seems right. All of his works, at least from the late 1940s on, are relentlessly focused at an observational level, almost cruel at times, while suffused with a range of moods, from the austere to the theatrical, as if visual facts were a container for fictions. Or, invoking the novelist Émile Zola’s words: “a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” 

Andrew Wyeth “Spring Fed” (1967) tempera on panel, 27 ½ x 39 ½ in. collection of Mr. and Mrs. W. D. Weiss. (© 2017 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS))

The Japanese see abstract meanings too. In the new catalogue for the Brandywine exhibition, Shuji Takahashi reveals why Wyeth’s work is collected in Japan more than in any other country but this one, and why Wyeth felt more understood there. His paintings reflect “the Japanese sense of life and death, a belief … that people are part of the great cycle of nature.” The tempera “Thin Ice” (1969) in the show is the most abstract piece, and is exhibited in America for the first time in decades. The orange and brown leaves in a stream under an ice sheet suggest a painter who could’ve been an accomplished abstract artist had he not found the genre dull. 

The Japanese never succumbed to the form of western modernity Wyeth’s art rejects, that is, the separation of truth from beauty. Here, what is beautiful cannot be true, and what is true cannot be beautiful. Europe caught this earlier, with the First World War — hence Dadaism — and then this view rose in the United States with WWII. Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist’s bent toward self-obliteration was incommensurable with a tenacious realism holding forth that humans are inherently dignified. Pop Art then successfully brought back realist imagery, but only by exhausting the meaning of the images’ referents. It’s striking to note Wyeth’s painting of Tom Clark in “Chester County” (1962) was made the same year Warhol introduced his serialized images of Campbell’ Soup. Wyeth was pursuing the human affect in his paintings that Pop Art was laying to rest.

When Robert Rosenblum said in 1977 that Andrew Wyeth was both the most overrated and underrated living American artist, he had it right. The “best” and “worst” artist would’ve been better candidates, but in accounting for collective perceptions, Wyeth did divide. This friction is playing out at the Museum of Modern Art right now. “Christina’s World” (1938), the famous painting of crippled Christina crawling up a hill toward home, was acquired as a work then considered categorically modern, surrealist. But as its popularity grew with the public, the museum’s curatorial thrust instead went toward Abstract-Expressionism, forcing MoMA into its present fix. It keeps the painting at home to do the heavy lifting — it’s their Mona Lisa for ticket sales and merchandising — but rejects displaying it as a great work of art. It’s rarely lent, citing concerns about its condition, a claim contradicted by their relegating it to the heavily trafficked hallway, to be appreciated en route to the toilet. Thus the rub: the museum’s curators let visitors know Wyeth is not a canonical artist, to be put in a legitimate gallery space, while also being substantially reliant on his work for financial support.

Andrew Wyeth, “Coming Storm” (1938) watercolor on paper, 18 x 22 in. private collection (© 2017 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS))

The artist’s watercolor landscapes are often considered his best works, or to his dedicated detractors, the least bad — which might in part be due to their purported affinity to Abstract Expressionism. Regardless, they are great works. There are no physical, mental, or material intermediaries between the artist’s spirit and his image. Wyeth’s brush does not represent the subject; it discovers it. The painting is a visual artifact and its process of making are the result of an experiential whole of pointed intention. Mistaking his facility as bravura, which is often done with these works, is like mistaking the beauty in an athlete’s skill — hard won by discipline — for ease. 

Given that so much handwringing has been generated about Wyeth for at least the last fifty years, his work is already interesting. The criticisms against him are more rich, varied, and contradictory than any other artist of the 20th century, with him being both lascivious and sexually repressed, impossibly fantastical and boringly descriptive, embarrassingly sentimental and oppressively racist, idyllic and depressed, undeservedly famous and nobody at all. The reasons to like him are less fanciful and few. He was a good guy, made likable pictures, and was a fantastic painter with a rare deftness of touch, able to make innumerable paintings of the same hill and never repeat himself, nail a subject in six seconds or six months, paint from imagination a picture more convincing than a photograph, keep brushes wet for 75 years, and have it in him to paint a “Goodbye” when he knows it’s time to go.

Editor’s Note: In the above the writer has made an apparently erroneous assumption about research efforts made by Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw with regard to contacting Wyeth’s living models. The piece also fails to acknowledge that her research on David Lawrence’s nickname was drawn on reputable sources. We apologize for these errors.

Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, PA) through September 17, 2017. It was jointly organized with the Seattle Art Museum and it will be on view at that institution October 19 2017–January 15, 2018.

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