Art for Christmas

"Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons"

Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 1976-February 1977

Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 192 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Wyeth at Kuerners

by Betsy James Wyeth
Houghton Mifflin, 324, 370 illus. pp., $75.00 thereafter

Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth; drawing by David Levine

How appropriate that the Metropolitan Museum should celebrate the end of this bicentennial year with an Andrew Wyeth exhibition! The institution, the art, the occasion were undeniably destined for one another. The very titles—Groundhog Day, Hickory Smoked, Moose Horns, Logging Scoot—personify the American way of life. Likewise, the works themselves gladden the hearts of patriots, not to speak of powerful trustees and donors. Wyeth’s tasteful blend of puritanism and nostalgia, verisimilitude and storytelling, epitomizes what a lot of WASPS and would-be WASPS expect in art. Even the artist’s ominous view of the world, as exemplified by two small areas of the US—one of them, suitably enough, in the heart of the Dupont country—finds favor. Does it not correspond to these ominous times, just as Wyeth’s self-congratulatory, m’as-tu vu technique corresponds to the self-congratulatory spirit of 1976?

True, Wyeth’s work may not command much intellectual respect, but it is the nearest thing to art officiel we have. By the same token it is art populaire of a high order. Its appeal is not limited to Far Hills; it also plays in Peoria, as witness record-breaking sales of reproductions and books. Even Snoopy owns a Wyeth. And then Wyeth has stamped himself on the American consciousness in yet another indelible way: through his imitators. If most of these are schlock artists, it is hardly his fault. Is it not enough that Wyeth has communicated his gifts to most members of his family circle? Last but not least, Wyeth, like the Metropolitan Museum, is synonymous in the public mind with quality—American quality. Here, to be sure, is an artist whose work is not only as finely wrought as a Shaker breadbox, Steuben vase, or Boehm bird, but whose technical virtuosity is acclaimed by eminent museum directors. No wonder America takes pride in him.

In honor of the occasion Thomas Hoving, doubling as director of the Metropolitan Museum and curator of this exhibition, has put on his best showman’s manner. He has been lavish with space and installation. He has been equally lavish with the quantity of exhibits. Hundreds of preliminary sketches, never shown before, have been grouped around a chronological succession of the artist’s major works in such a way that we can follow Wyeth’s trains of thought image by image. And Mr. Hoving has cleverly given form to the show by polarizing Wyeth’s two environments—hence the subtitle, “Kuerners and Olsons.” The German-born Karl Kuerner—successively shepherd, sniper, slaughterer, farmer—and his deluded wife Anna personify Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where the artist spends his winters. The partly Swedish Alvaro Olson—fisherman turned blueberry-grower—and his crippled sister Christina (both now dead) personify Cushing, Maine, where Wyeth spends his summers. A third section, “promised” works from the collection of the movie producer Joseph Levine, is a less happy idea, since it blurs the fine distinctions (winter/summer; Pennsylvania/Maine) that Mr. Hoving has been at pains to draw.

The Metropolitan has…

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