Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009
I enjoyed Steve Kaplan’s blog on certain art critics’ reviews of Andrew Wyeth’s lifetime of work, after the artist’s passing last week. I was surpised to read Kaplan’s statement that “deep in the pit of the avant garde stomach is also a gnawing fear that Joe Sixpack doesn’t give a damn for their rarefied, effete mileu, rather choosing to embrace the overwhelming preponderance of coffee table book images and magazine covers by Wyeth, Rockwell et. al.” I’m going to pull that one out the next time someone brands me as a sentimental provincialist. Wyeth’s paintings have always roused invisible demarcation lines that exist between economic, intellectual and artistic classes of people. I’ve found that one always learns more about the writer reviewing Wyeth’s work, than about Wyeth the man, or even the work of Wyeth.
Wyeth’s work and career are particularly interesting in that it has always challenged notions about what art and painting are in the 20th century. Wyeth continued an artistic line from the Philadelphia area, which at the time was running concurrently to the more rigorous training and professional trajectory coming out of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, built up by Thomas Eakins and celebrated by the aristocratic class in New York. He was schooled at home by his mother and taught drawing and painting by his father Newell Convers Wyeth. N.C. Wyeth studied painting and illustration under Howard Pyle at the “Brandywine School of Illustration” in Philadelphia. Having a fair amount of skill in draftsmanship, N.C. Wyeth was afforded the literary contacts built up by Pyle, who pioneered an illustration style that publishing firms utilized a great deal. N.C. Wyeth continued that work, and when Andrew came of age, he also went the route of selling his paintings to magazines and literary quarterlies. Seeing the popular success of Wyeth’s work, museums gradually came around and exhibited his work due to it’s potential for financial draw at the gate.
People have used varying adjectives to either marginalize or praise Wyeth’s tempera paintings: “conservative realism”, “social realism”, “American realism”, “classical realism”. There’s no arguing that Wyeth’s style is an individualist’s, and his work is instantly recognizeable, although often too long on pathos. The dry, brittle, tactile ochres, browns and grays inspired by the soil he inhabited permeated his work throughout a sixty year career in painting and drawing. The longevity of his mark making on surfaces and representing the world graphically is hard to critically dismiss, even if his paintings were often considered trite and sentimental by post World War II art critics. Regardless of his detractors, Wyeth enjoyed a popular perception as being a uniquely American artist, not just for his citizenship but for his chosen imagery. A museum in New York, Nebraska, California, Maine, Washington, anywhere in the U.S. could mount an exhibition of Wyeth’s work and receive high attendance. Could the same be true of the Abstract Expressionists, or of any other artist of different movements? Most likely no. That counts for something.
Wyeth’s Christina’s World first came into my consciousness as a young fourth grader in an art class at school. The image haunted me as a young child. Perhaps because of this early impression I still find his best known works as being very strange. It seems unusual that these works would be so celebrated by Americans, because there’s something definitely not right about them. A psychological distance exists in his works, one like that of an experience of amnesia and a longing for a forgotten sweetness that will never return. In this way Wyeth’s work exemplifies America’s belief that history does not exist and that it’s people are constantly reinventing themselves and free from any tethering past.
Andrew Wyeth’s work offers an interesting template for artists which exists in a hard to define region between art as craft and art as abstract social testament. One thing that can’t be denied is his lifelong dedication to painting.