- By: Edgar Allen Beem
Photo Credit: Turkey Pond, 1944, tempera © Andrew Wyeth , Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wyeth in memory of Walter Anderson
The earthly remains of Andrew Wyeth, arguably the most popular American artist of the twentieth century, lie in a modest seaside cemetery on Hawthorne Point in Cushing. In accordance with his wishes, Wyeth, who passed away on January 16 at the age of ninety-one, was buried next to Christina Olson, the Maine woman he immortalized in his most famous painting, Christina’s World. The dark wooden hulk of the Olson House stands atop the sloping field above the graveyard, just as it did in 1948 when Wyeth painted the crippled spinster crawling home after visiting the graves of her kin.
Having written about art in Maine for thirty years and having known Andrew Wyeth for twenty, his death prompted me to seek an honest answer to the question that has dogged Wyeth and his art at least since World War II — why was an artist so revered by the general public so reviled by the major art critics of his day?
Art historian and Guggenheim Museum curator Robert Rosenblum probably came close to the truth back in 1987 when, on the occasion of all the hoopla surrounding the release of Wyeth’s cache of “Helga” nudes, he described Andrew Wyeth as “at once the most overestimated painter by the public and the most underestimated painter by the knowing art audience.”
Wyeth’s public tends to see him as a masterful realist capturing an essential element of the rural American character. His critics tend to see him as a regionalist at best, a romantic throwback certainly, and a sentimentalist at heart. To my eye, Andrew Wyeth was something else entirely — a death-haunted genius who employed very traditional aesthetic means to conjure a very modern sense of alienation, loneliness, and existential dread.
The iconic Christina’s World distills the essence of the Andrew Wyeth conundrum. While it can be seen as an incredibly realist depiction of a Maine farm scene, it is, in fact, a work of magical realism. There is no such natural perspective on the Olson House. And the focal figure is not really Christina Olson at all, but a simulacrum in which Wyeth has attached Miss Olson’s withered arms to the lithe body of his lovely wife Betsy and given the conjured corpus the head of hair of one of his sisters-in-law. As with many of his best paintings, Christina’s World is essentially a surrogate self-portrait, a picture of Wyeth’s own defiant independence embodied in a deliberate outsider — a crippled woman who preferred to crawl rather than take to a wheelchair.
And, like virtually every swelling hill in Wyeth’s work, the grassy field can be read as the substantial body of his larger-than-life father, the famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth. His father smothered Andy with his love and mentoring, so his son was crushed when the elder Wyeth died tragically in 1945 when a train hit his car. Andrew worshipped the ground his father walked on. Christina’s World, then, is also a visual meditation on mortality. Sixty-one years after it was painted, both Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth are buried just beyond the frame to the left.
The conservative surrealism of Christina’s World appealed to the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, but one would be hard-pressed to find another Wyeth hanging at MOMA today. For one thing, all of his paintings are small, domestic scale, compared with major works by his contemporaries, who painted for institutions, not individuals. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, it would be hard to overstate the critical prejudice against the man and his art.
On the occasion of the 2005-2006 retrospective, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in fact, former MOMA curator Robert Storr, a Maine native who is now dean of the Yale University School of Art, dismissed Wyeth’s aesthetic as “dry, high WASP.”
“I was born in Maine. I know these people,” said Storr. “Nothing about Wyeth is honest. He always goes back to that manicured desolation.”
Venerated by the public, Wyeth has been vilified by the critics. New Criterion editor and former New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who summers in Waldoboro, has been particularly harsh over the years. “He’s just an illustrator,” Kramer has said. “Wyeth’s paintings have nothing to do with serious artistic expression.”
A few days after his death, the case for and against Wyeth was made on WHYY radio in Philadelphia in the form of a dialogue between Anne Knutson, independent curator of Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, and Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for the New Yorker. Schjeldahl had stated the contemporary art world case against Wyeth most succinctly in 2005 when he said, “Wyeth isn’t exactly a painter. He is a gifted illustrator for reproduction, which improves his dull originals.”
Back in the 1970s, Peter Schjeldahl used to summer in midcoast Maine as a houseguest of artists Alex Katz and Neil Welliver. He knows enough about Maine and about art to be worth talking to about Wyeth, so I called him.
“He was very good in his way,” Schjeldahl allows. “I find his work entirely uninvolving but well-done and memorable. It’s better in reproduction than in person. Up close it’s hopelessly fussy.”
Knutson, who believes the art world turned on Wyeth after World War II when traditional realist painting was rejected in favor of abstract art, also told me she thinks Wyeth was a victim of the on-going American culture war. “There was a lot of dissing Andy’s audience, which was seen as Republican, conservative, middlebrow people,” Knutson says. “It was not about the work; it was about the people.”
Art critic and novelist Brian O’Doherty, who creates conceptual art under the name Patrick Ireland, has said that he thinks Wyeth “is grievously misjudged by city people.”
“What people see in Wyeth is sentiment,” O’Doherty wrote in 2005, “but country sentiment is a cover for all kinds of brutalities.”
Even while dismissing Wyeth’s art as “beige paintings in beige rooms for people with beige minds,” Peter Schjeldahl admits that he was probably harder on Wyeth than he needed to be back when he first moved to New York, in part out of a sense that he had to reject the provincialism of his own native North Dakota. (New York, of course, practices its own brand of urbane provincialism.)
That said, Schjeldahl sounded another of the most frequent complaints about Wyeth, that he is “entirely outside the modern world.” It is not true, though, that the twentieth century never appeared in Wyeth’s work. If much of his imaginative world looks like the past, it is in part due to the fact that Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he was born and lived most of the year, has a distinctive eighteenth-century look and feel while much of the Maine coast still looks as it did in the nineteenth century. Here in Maine, everywhere we look we see Wyeths.
What critics often haven’t seen, however, are Wyeth’s obviously contemporary paintings. In Otherworld (2002), for example, Wyeth portrayed his wife, Betsy, flying through the sky in former MBNA CEO Charles Cawley’s corporate jet. Betsy looks out one window at the Wyeths’ Chadds Ford home, while up ahead in another window is their private retreat on Benner Island off Port Clyde. The empty chair across from her seems to foretell her husband’s passing. In Homeland Security (2006), Betsy is seen seated on a rock on Benner Island as a P3 Orion reconnaissance plane out of Brunswick Naval Air Station flies by impossibly low and threatening over the island. If this is a political statement, it’s hard to say what Wyeth’s politics were.
“I wonder,” says Anne Knutson, getting at the gravest fault line between Wyeth and post-modern art, “if one of the reasons he was so dissed in the ’60s was because he wasn’t ironic like pop art and Chuck Close.”
Sincerity embarrasses sophisticates, so irony is the coin of the realm in the art world. Impeccable craftsmanship is valued only if it is in the service of something ironic, such as Chuck Close’s photorealist portraits of his artist friends, which often look like vintage daguerreotypes, or Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans. If it is seen as merely trying to imitate appearances, it is quickly dismissed as old hat. What admirers and detractors alike often don’t understand about Wyeth, however, is that most of his best paintings were not imitations of reality but elaborate and very private symbolic illusions, conjurings.
Nonetheless, Wyeth remains resolutely outside the artistic mainstream.
“Our world didn’t isolate him. He isolated himself,” insists Peter Schjeldahl. “He chose to have nothing to do with the rest of contemporary art, with the exception of Christina’s World.”
“He wasn’t like Thomas Hart Benton,” observes Anne Knutson. “He didn’t go out and defend his work. He went inward and inward and inward.”
The one thing that both Schjeldahl and Knutson agree on was that Wyeth’s art and Wyeth’s world were “hermetic,” sealed off and secretive. “They’ve done that to themselves,” says Knutson of the Wyeth family’s notorious penchant for
secrecy and privacy.
Schjeldahl calls Wyeth’s exclusion the “self-punishment of the control freak.”
Hunkered down in Chadds Ford, Wyeth had the nearby Brandywine River Museum as his own private showplace, and summering in Cushing, Port Clyde, and on his private island, he had the Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland as his Maine outlet. He had no need for the rest of the art world. The tight control that the Wyeth family
exerts over the display and reproduction of images may also have alienated Wyeth from the larger scene.
Then, too, Andrew Wyeth’s work is rarely seen in any context other than Wyeth art — the extended family of imagery created by father N.C. Wyeth, son Jamie, and a host of acolytes. With wife Betsy as his de facto curator, son Nicholas as his dealer, granddaughter Victoria as his docent, and in-laws Dudley Rockwell and Frolic Weymouth as his spokesmen, it’s hard to deny Peter Schjeldahl’s conclusion that “he’s a brand.” Or, as a curator who once ran afoul of the family was told, “My dear, the Wyeths are a business.”
Ultimately, Andrew Wyeth can probably be seen as a victim of his own success and of a clannish isolationism that, in part, may have been a circling of the wagons in the face of so much critical hostility. “He lived in a small world, but it was so rich in that small world,” Wyeth’s old friend Peter Ralston told me recently.
Ralston grew up next door to the Wyeths in Chadds Ford and came to Maine, where he co-founded the Island Institute, at their invitation. Not only was he a close friend and confidant, Ralston photographed Wyeth’s catalogue raisonné and created many of the best photographs of the great man.
“Andy’s work, on one level, was so accessible and popular, that it was the kiss of death,” says Ralston. “It got the high art critical community just crazy.”
Ironically, in an art world that nominally champions individuality, Wyeth may have been shunned for his total independence. “Andy wasn’t painting for other people; he was painting for himself,” Peter Ralston says. “And he was so true to the course he set for himself. It’s difficult to think of Andy having contemporaries. He was true, unique, different, unto himself.”
What posterity will make of Wyeth’s individual achievement and place in art history is anyone’s guess.
“I’m hoping with his death and a new generation of critics,” says curator Anne Knutson, “we can look at him in a different light.”
Former Farnsworth Museum director Christopher Crosman, now curator of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art currently being built in Bentonville, Arkansas, told me, “I think history will be kinder to Andy than most current critics think. The niche he fits into is traditional realism, going back to Eakins, Homer, and Hopper. He may be seen as extending that tradition, but that’s a part of American art history yet to be written.”
My own sense is that Andrew Wyeth may be destined to remain a special case, an outsider, a twentieth-century artist who lived and worked in self-imposed exile from the art world of his time. If so, that’s probably just the way he’d have wanted it.
IF YOU GO
The Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum is located at 16 Museum Street in Rockland. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. 207-596-6457. www.farnsworthmuseum.org