Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In
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.
The absorbing new Wyeth exhibition, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In,” is in certain respects the opposite of the Helga show, 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.
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