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Wyeth and the ‘Pursuit of Strangeness’

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 4–November 30, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition by Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock
National Gallery of Art/DAP, 192 pp., $55.00; $35.00 (paper)

Rethinking Andrew Wyeth

edited by David Cateforis
University of California Press, 232 pp., $60.00 (to be published in July 2014)

Andrew Wyeth: A Spoken Self-Portrait

by Richard Meryman, selected and arranged from recorded conversations with the artist, 1964–2007
National Gallery of Art/DAP, 125 pp., $29.95
benfey_1-061914.jpg
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Andrew Wyeth: Wind from the Sea, 1947

1.

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.

The result of the carefully conceived installation, in which preparatory studies are grouped around more finished and often drastically simplified (in Wyeth’s phrase, “boiling down”) paintings, is an increasingly immersive experience, an aesthetic revelation rather than a prurient one. The catalog essays, by National Gallery curators Nancy Anderson (on Wyeth’s working process) and Charles Brock (comparing Wyeth’s windows to two influences, Edward Hopper and the Pennsylvania precisionist Charles Sheeler), are understated, inquisitive, and well written—in English that, as Marianne Moore once said, cats and dogs can understand.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the tacit embargo on scholarly attention to Wyeth—what Wanda Corn calls the “Wyeth Curse” that “has muzzled research and intellectual dialogue in the academy”—is being lifted after some fifty years. One reason, surely, is that Wyeth, whom Robert Hughes judged, in 1982, “the most famous artist in America” (“because his work,” according to Hughes, “suggests a frugal, bare-bones rectitude, glazed by nostalgia but incarnated in real objects”2), has all but disappeared from view in popular culture, eclipsed by Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe, and his work is open to new discovery.

A younger generation of art historians, immune to the old battles surrounding Wyeth, when he was often regarded as the crusty counterpoise of anything truly modern in art, is exploring his varied work—more overlooked than truly looked at in recent decades—as though it is virgin territory. Wyeth’s surging reputation in Asia—many of the pieces in the current show are borrowed from a single collection in Japan, while interest in Wyeth (referred to as “Wyethiana”) among Chinese artists has intensified since the end of the Cultural Revolution—is another reason why he is back in circulation.

2.

“Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” was inspired by a gift to the National Gallery in 2009, a few weeks after Wyeth’s death at age ninety-one, of a relatively small—one might even say window-sized—painting called Wind from the Sea, begun in the Wyeths’ summer retreat in Cushing, Maine, in August 1947, when Wyeth was barely thirty, and two years after his father, N.C. Wyeth, the great illustrator of Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans, died, along with Wyeth’s four-year-old nephew, in a railroad accident at Chadds Ford. His father’s death was particularly momentous for Wyeth, the youngest of five children, and haunted many of his subsequent paintings, such as the superb and enigmatic Spring Fed (1967), a centerpiece of the National Gallery show, with its brace of windows (one of which is mysteriously shorn of its mullions) looking out from a cistern in the Kuerner barn on a field near the crossing where N.C. died.

Homeschooled as a frail child and free to roam the idyllic Brandywine countryside in dress-up games of Robin Hood—the picture of Robin’s death by his father was, according to Wyeth, an influence on the horizontal layout and “sense of foreboding” of Spring Fed—Wyeth, whose only art teacher was his father, had shown early promise, and doggedly completed the tedious drawing exercises of cones and boxes that his father inflicted on him. The elder Wyeth, who had built at Chadd’s Ford an imposing house and studio—with a separate high-ceilinged room, equipped with movable stairs, for painting murals—created around him a theatrical grandeur that overshadowed and overwhelmed his gifted son, who preferred to work for much of his life in a small converted schoolhouse nearby. To visit the two studios today, now in the possession of the Brandywine Conservancy, which also administers the Brandywine River Museum with its trove of art by the Wyeths, is to step from the fantasy-driven dimensions of the Gilded Age to something more intimate and human-scale, in keeping with Wyeth’s own subtler artistic practice.

Wyeth developed early on a flair for watercolor, combining a freehanded vigor with an uncanny ability to capture detailed effects of water and light in pictures that recalled Winslow Homer, a family idol—the Wyeth summer home in Maine was called “Eight Bells” after Homer’s heroic painting of sailors taking their bearings at sea. In 1937, when he was twenty, Wyeth’s precocious show of watercolors—“the very best watercolors I ever saw!” according to N.C.—sold out in two days at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in New York.

But Wyeth sensed that something more than facility and commercial viability were needed, an attitude reinforced by his young wife, Betsy, who had grown up in the Roycroft community in upstate New York, dedicated to the austere arts-and-crafts values of John Ruskin and William Morris. When Wyeth painted a cover for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 and was offered a contract for ten more, Betsy, his longtime business manager, warned him against it: “You will be nothing but Norman Rockwell for the rest of your life. If you do it, I’m going to walk out of this house.” His father’s death, according to Wyeth, “put me in touch with something beyond me, things to think and feel, things that meant everything to me.”

Wind from the Sea was among the first paintings in which he tried to express some of those things. A partially opened window, with billowing curtains decorated with crocheted birds momentarily in flight, almost fills the frame, revealing—through the frayed and disintegrating lace—a view of a field traversed by a curving dirt road, a narrow line of evergreens on the horizon, and a silvery sliver of the sea. The mood of this monochromatic painting, all grayish greens giving way to greenish grays, is timeworn and melancholy, even if we don’t know that among the distant evergreens is a family graveyard, the same one in which Wyeth himself is now buried.

The picture was executed on a panel of Masonite in the exacting medium of egg tempera, requiring many applications over weeks or even months of patient crosshatching. Paradoxically, the result, viewed up close, is a glossy painted surface in which marks of the hand are rendered all but invisible, like a photographic print of itself.

In sharp contrast are the freely rendered studies, in pencil and watercolor, that, as was Wyeth’s usual practice, preceded the laborious painting. According to Wyeth, he was working in a stifling upper room of the dilapidated, eighteenth-century farmhouse belonging to his friends the destitute siblings Christina and Alvaro Olson, who made a hardscrabble living by picking blueberries, when he crossed the room to open a window and let in some air.

It is at this point that the full drama of Wind from the Sea begins to emerge, for the picture is intimately tied to Christina’s World, painted the following year in 1948, and may even be viewed as something of a preview of it. Christina’s World is among the most immediately recognizable pictures in all of American art, as familiar as Whistler’s Mother or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, as isolated in its resolute pictorial strangeness, among the surrounding expanse of cubist and abstract art, as the lone figure of Christina Olson herself crawling—or rather clawing—her way across the same Maine field that we see out the window in Wind from the Sea, toward the same distant farmhouse in which Wyeth opened the window to let in some air.

Much has been written about how the paraplegic Christina, crippled by a childhood disease that may have been polio, was unable to walk, and how her close friend Betsy James, another summer visitor, introduced Wyeth, her future husband, to Christina, already past fifty at the time of the painting. Betsy James actually posed for Christina’s body. But the linkage between the two paintings may be closer still. For we learn from this exhibition that Wyeth’s first quick sketch of the curtains billowing from the opened window was on a piece of paper that already had Christina’s head carefully drawn on it. Wyeth positioned the window immediately beneath the head, as though Christina was somehow wearing the window or had partially turned into it. According to the curators, Wyeth simply “grabbed” a piece of paper close to hand, but it seems possible that more is going on here than mere convenience.

  1. 1

    Neil Harris, Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 438–442. 

  2. 2

    See Robert Hughes, “ The Rise of Andy Warhol,” The New York Review, February 18, 1982. 

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