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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

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 also come up with a handsome catalogue, consisting primarily of an exhaustive interview with the artist—the most revealing thing of its kind. However, I cannot help feeling that the frankness of this dialogue does more credit to Wyeth’s honesty than his wisdom. The artist explains too much of his work away. Can art function where there is no mystery?

As befits the head of a great institution responsible for the presentation of a popular, if controversial, artist, Mr. Hoving is at pains to reassure us of his detachment: “we are neither trying to create an image nor to dismantle one,” he maintains in his foreword. So far, so good. Alas, detachment flies out of the window a few lines later: “The exhibition must be considered only a preface to things to come, for it is the Metropolitan Museum’s intention to prepare and produce a catalogue raisonné of all of Andrew Wyeth’s production in these two environments.”

It is one thing for the Metropolitan to treat Wyeth to a major retrospective—a blessing it has withheld from every other American contemporary with the exception of Albers—but it is quite another to canonize him with a catalogue raisonné, especially when the museum is lamentably behind with the publication of its own treasures. What, for instance, has the Metropolitan brought out that can compare with Angelica Rudenstein’s masterly catalogue of the Guggenheim Museum’s collection? Since so few institutions can afford the time or money that serious art publishing involves, the Metropolitan’s plunge into the catalogue raisonné business would be welcome news, but only so long as a Wyeth catalogue is at the bottom rather than the top of its priority list.

In any case, hasn’t the Metropolitan contributed enough to the Wyeth cult? Quite apart from the current show, it has sponsored a closed bid auction of fourteen drawings (total value around $120,000) donated by the artist, the proceeds to be shared equally by the museum and the New York University Medical Center. Furthermore, two portfolios of Wyeth reproductions—financed, like the exhibition and the catalogue, by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Levine—are being sold by the museum in aid of the same two causes. Granted, the Metropolitan stands to make some badly needed money out of these transactions, but so influential an institution should not look as if it is peddling its imprimatur.

Moreover, most of this Kuerner/Olson material has already been published. A few Christmases ago, Houghton Mifflin brought out a tombstone of a book by Richard Meryman1 with a special section devoted to the two environments. Thanks to the reproductions—165 of them in color, and remarkably faithful color too—the book was a best-seller, despite a price of $75.00. The text, as one has come to expect from the artist’s champions, is a mixture of travelogue and folksiness. As Wyeth has said, “Most of what is…written about me seems to be set to the tune of ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ ” Listen to Mr. Meryman: “Mrs. Wyeth still picks berries…and still uses her girlhood berry bucket.” It also makes the usual wacky claims for “the abstract or near abstract genesis” of Wyeth’s work. For instance, on the strength of a slapdash watercolor of “some smoke-house apples…lightly frosted in the night,” Mr. Meryman opines that Wyeth is “acting like an abstract expressionist.” Far from having any kinship with Jackson Pollock, these splotches of color recall the way John Singer Sargent would enliven an inert little aquarelle.

I am all for Wyeth’s work being made palatable to the avant garde but not by dressing him up as an Abstract Expressionist. Surely the dynamics of Wyeth’s compositions, the cross-lighting, the contrasts of rough and smooth are none the worse for deriving from much nearer home, the Brandywine School of Howard Pyle and Wyeth’s father, N.C. Wyeth, rather than from Franz Kline. However, Mr. Meryman is preferable to Gene Logsdon, author of Wyeth People, “a portrait of Andrew Wyeth as he is seen by his friends and neighbors.”2 This shameless Schwärmerei by a farmer who clandestinely “dogged Andrew Wyeth’s boot tracks” for twenty years makes all other texts on the artist seem reticent.

Mr. Meryman also crops up as an interviewer in far and away the best publication of Wyeth: the catalogue that Wanda M. Corn compiled to accompany her exhibition of Wyeth’s work for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (1973). Contributions by Brian O’Doherty, E.P. Richardson, and Mrs. Corn constitute the only serious attempt to see the artist in the context of his time as well as in the setting of the Brandywine School of illustrators which begat him. Mrs. Corn is the first person to have perceived the parallel between Wyeth and American photographers of the Thirties and Forties. Too bad she did not follow up this point and show how close Wyeth is to photographers of the Depression—not least Walker Evans—who explored suffering primarily for its picturesque possibilities.

This Christmas Betsy Wyeth, the artist’s wife, takes over from Mr. Meryman. She has come up with another huge $75.00 album, Wyeth at Kuerners, devoted to the artist’s Pennsylvania environment. With its 370 reproductions, 315 of which have never been reproduced before, this book duplicates much of the Metropolitan show. Too much! The good things are swamped by an embarrassment of sketches. Mrs. Wyeth should have left most of these vignettes in the drawers to which her husband wisely relegated them, for they make one wonder whether all that painstaking brushwork, which passes in some circles for genius, is not an attempt to camouflage the triteness of the original conception.

I hope you will forgive me,” Mrs. Wyeth pleads, “for throwing all scholarship to the four winds, for disregarding dates, seasons…and chronological sequences.” Once again we are foisted off with a guided tour of the hallowed spots. “Down the Driveway to the Spillway,” “Approaching the House from the Back,” “Going Inside and Upstairs” and—mercifully—“Walking out the Driveway”; thus the subdivisions of Mrs. Wyeth’s Baedeker. The text recalls one of those illustrated primers devised for Victorian children: “The second-floor window is still open and Karl must be smoking pork in the big chimney.” Art as explicit and anecdotal as Wyeth’s requires virtually no exegesis, but if we have to have it, let there be an original idea or two, or a surprise, not this simplistic stuff that parodies the spirit of the artist’s work.

Photographs of Karl Kuerner, the grim protagonist of many of these pictures, being awarded the Iron Cross by “Little Willy” add nothing to our understanding or appreciation of the artist’s work. And of what conceivable interest is Mrs. Wyeth’s observation that her husband “has never painted a picture or even made a drawing on [the Kuerner’s] second floor”? Enough of the bloodthirsty Kuerner and his sad Anna! Enough family piety—more becoming in a widow than a wife! And to think that Mr. Hoving is going to put us through this pilgrimage again. He is surely joking.

Regardless of persuasion, critics tend to uptightness in the presence of Wyeth’s work. Trigger-happy veterans, like John Canaday, behave as if fighting a desperate rear-guard action in defense of their hero. And yet, apart from Hilton Kramer, there is hardly a soul on the other side of the battlefield. This is the more surprising, for Wyeth’s work is apt to be used as a rallying-ground by anyone with a grievance against modern art. Notwithstanding this, the reaction of the avant garde to Wyeth is mostly one of indifference rather than resentment. He simply does not impinge. Wyeth and, for example, Jasper Johns are like two people going up and down the double spiral staircase at Chambord; they will never conceivably cross.

A further misconception on the part of the artist’s apologists is that his work is unfairly dismissed as illustrative: “a belittling label attached to Wyeth’s work in toto,” says Canaday. “In the jargon of today’s art critics, no more withering phrase can be uttered,” declares another Wyeth buff, Henry C. Pitz.3 What critics do they have in mind? Roger Fry? “Illustrative” was long ago promoted from the critic’s sottisier. If it had not, pop art could hardly have been seriously discussed. Of course Christina’s World is illustrative—what is wrong with that?

But even the less blinkered critics tend to be defensive and tense about Wyeth, maybe because they feel inhibited by a deep-seated democratic fear that the masses cannot be entirely wrong. Also it is hard, these days, to make a convincing case for art which is as anachronistic as Wyeth’s or which is often negative in spirit to the point of nastiness. For there is no escaping the fact that Wyeth is at his best portraying people who are at a disadvantage. Indeed the effectiveness of his pictures is often proportionate to the degree of pity that has gone into them—pity moreover of a particularly predatory kind. This partly explains the weird power of Wyeth’s portraits—to my mind his best work. The very weakness of his poor whites, poorer blacks, cripples, morons, losers, drifters inspires an extra strength in this artist. But it is surprising that Wyeth’s sentimental relish for the underprivileged—so characteristic of the WASP sensibility these days—has not made his oeuvre more abhorrent to critics with “advanced” views. Or perhaps writers feel that it would be caddish to kick Wyeth, tantamount to kicking Christina as she crawls through the grass. Take Thomas Hess in New York Magazine. This most canny of American critics tiptoed around Chadds Ford as though the place were paved with eggs; he even insinuated that our reservations might count against us in some future reckoning.

Anyone in search of an antidote to feelings of guilt and unease engendered by the Wyeth show is advised to visit Kynaston McShine’s firework display, “The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950” at the Museum of Modern Art—certainly the most illuminating exhibition of this bicentennial year.4 Here we can see, among much else, how Wyeth measures up to his predecessors in the American tradition as well as to his contemporaries, be they Abstract Expressionists, Magic Realists, or Field painters. The detachment and discretion that have gone into the organization of this show relieve one of the obligation—so pressing in the presence of Wyeth—of applying a double set of standards. Mr. McShine has suggested a new hierarchy of American artists.

The first two Wyeths in Mr. McShine’s exhibition are so early—they date from the crucial period (1942-1943) when the artist’s formidable young wife and The Saturday Evening Post were battling for his soul—that they register little more than the artist’s innate aptitude as an illustrator. But the third painting, Hoffman’s Slough (1947), as sparse and bleak as any of his landscapes, is one of Wyeth’s most dramatic images. It is to Mr. McShine’s credit that he disdains superficial parallels—far be it from him to suggest that if stood on its side, Hoffman’s Slough might resemble a Clyfford Still. Instead he has set up a succession of eye-opening juxtapositions, few as revealing as those of Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and that most neglected of major American artists, Edwin Dickinson. (Why doesn’t the Metropolitan give him a retrospective?) Like Hoffman’s Slough, Hopper’s Railroad Sunset is poignant, literal, and unmistakably American in feeling. Whereas the Wyeth is merely eye-catching, the Hopper says something memorable that had not been stated before about life in this country in this century. By the same token, the Wyeth is as carefully executed, as luminous as Dickinson’s Stranded Brig, but it never attains the sheer painterliness, let alone the poetic feeling, that permeates Dickinson’s masterpiece.

In my view the explanation of these limitations lies in Wyeth’s “Gothic” (his word) imagination: a hand-me-down world—fustian, creepy, hag-ridden—inherited from his father, but without the saving grace of N.C.’s gusto. The son’s empty rooms are out of Alfred Hitchcock rather than Robert Louis Stevenson; his sitters, with their air of having seen something nasty in Karl Kuerner’s woodshed, smack of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. The Gothic world of Andrew Wyeth is thus novelettish rather than novelistic, picturesque rather than sublime.

And how genteel it is by comparison with the vision of earlier Brandywine artists! We only have to turn to the Maxfield Parrishes in Mr. McShine’s show (“at long last included here within the traditional pantheon of early twentieth-century masters,” as the catalogue says) to appreciate that Parrish’s euphoric view of the world outshines Wyeth’s, as Alfred Tennyson’s (e.g., “The Lotos-Eaters”) outshines Richard Watson Dixon’s (“The thistle now is older, / His stalk begins to moulder, / His head is white as snow…”).

But then Parrish had one enormous advantage: the courage of his vulgarity. He was never inhibited by the enemy of good art, good taste. For all that his work is often commercial, Parrish’s vegetation oozes with sap; Wyeth’s has been dried to death. Wyeth’s images are haunting and haunted, sad as autumn leaves, pressed flowers, or husks—lifeless and empty as the mind of poor Mrs. Kuerner.

  1. 1

    Andrew Wyeth, by Andrew Wyeth and Richard Meryman (Houghton Mifflin, 1968).

  2. 2

    Doubleday, 1971.

  3. 3

    The Brandywine Tradition, by Henry C. Pitz (Houghton Mifflin, 1969).

  4. 4

    Museum of Modern Art, October 1 through November 30. Catalogue available from the Museum of Modern Art, 180 pp., 169 black and white illustrations and 16 color illustrations, $19.95; $7.95 (paper).

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