National Gallery of Art/DAP, 192 pp., $55.00; $35.00 (paper)
The last time that the National Gallery devoted an exhibition to Andrew Wyeth, it was billed as a revelation but received with some resistance. This was the notorious Helga show, or striptease, as John Updike—one of the few critics to find things to admire in the 1987 exhibition—described it: several hundred pictures executed on the sly (both Wyeth’s wife and Helga’s husband were, reportedly, kept in the dark) from 1971 to 1985, representing a striking German woman with long, reddish-blond hair, often depicted, clothed or in the nude, in pensive reverie. Helga Testorf, a GI bride and homesick mother of four, served as a nurse in the household of Karl Kuerner, a machine gunner for the German army during World War I, and was a neighbor of the Wyeths at Chadds Ford, in the Revolutionary War district of the Brandywine Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania, an area dotted with picturesque farms and the secluded mansions of the du Ponts.
It wasn’t just the voyeuristic aura of the Helga exhibition, the museum’s first one-man show granted to a living American painter, that annoyed critics and—according to Neil Harris’s recent book about its longtime director J. Carter Brown—troubled curators as well.1 It was its seemingly meretricious nature, at a time when Wyeth’s popularity with museumgoers remained high even as his reputation among critics, having crested by the mid-1960s, was in decline.
The pictures on the walls belonged to a rich Philadelphia publisher who, as owner of the copyrights, stood to gain from exposure in such a respected venue. After a national tour of the exhibition, he crassly sold his cache to a Japanese company. Lambasted by critics as an “absurd error” (John Russell) and an “essentially tasteless endeavor” (Jack Flam), the show was a traumatic event for the museum, “the most polarizing National Gallery exhibition of the late 1980s,” according to Harris.
The absorbing new Wyeth exhibition, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In,” is in certain respects the opposite of the Helga show, even something of an exorcism of it. Where the Helga show was dominated by a single human figure, the current exhibition is entirely without people, except for a couple of preparatory sketches. Insistent images of Helga confronted viewers of the earlier show: Helga radiantly nude except for a choker, à la Olympia, against black velvet; Helga reclining naked under menacing meat hooks (“like the ones from which Hitler had von Stauffenberg hung by the neck,” commented John Russell); Helga in blackface, or rather black skin, in the unsettling slave fantasy called Barracoon. (Wyeth remarked that he was “thinking of the enclosures in which they kept slaves in the time of Thomas Jefferson…. To me,” he added artlessly, “this is purity, simplicity.”) Instead of such cacophonous material, the current show is built around a single, quiet motif in many variations: the window.
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