From Wyeth, a certain chill Review: 'America's Painter' has mastered emotion, but flair of modernity is still elusive.

September 25, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The world of Andrew Wyeth's art is a cold one. The pictures we see in "Andrew Wyeth: America's Painter," the exhibit opening today at the Baltimore Museum of Art, can make one feel cold when the subject is bathed in full sunlight, as in "Church at the Port" (1982), and even when the subject is a blaze, as in "Bonfire" (1992).

In part, the coldness comes from the fact that Wyeth lives largely in cold climates -- Chadds Ford, Pa., in the winter and Cushing, Maine, in the summer. It's to Wyeth's credit that he's able to capture that coldness and give us pictures that make us want to put on a sweater, if not an overcoat.

In part, the coldness comes from the fact that the artist largely eschews the warmer colors -- the reds, the yellows, the oranges, except for a touch here and there -- and gives us a cool palette composed of greens, browns, grays and whites.

There is a third component to the Wyeth coldness, however; a disturbing one: It's the coldness of detachment, calculation and manipulation.

This is not a matter of technique, though Wyeth's technical virtuosity is as great in the watercolors that populate this exhibit as it is in the tempera paintings for which he is better known. If the medium is being expertly manipulated, however (and it is), these pictures manipulate the response of the viewing audience with equal skill.

In her introductory essay to the show's catalog, curator Martha R. Severens identifies "the accessibility of his imagery as well as his technical skill" as the basis of Wyeth's popularity. But there's another salient element to the appeal of Wyeth's art -- its emotional content, and specifically the carefully veiled sentimentality that inhabits the heart of this work, the more powerfully so because of the reserve with which it is usually achieved.

The people in Wyeth's paintings -- "Blue-Eyed Susan" (1992), say, or "Captain Cook" (1986) or "The Rebel" (1977) -- communicate the sense that here is an honest depiction of an honest face, a true American appreciation of good American qualities. These are not fancy pictures of fancy people -- the rich, the important, the famous -- but frank, even blunt, pictures of ordinary people, just like you and me.

Similarly, the Wyeth landscape, in its bleak simplicity ("Pole Gate," 1986) speaks of hard-won triumphs over adversity, of the honor of steadfastness in a world of treacherous ease. And his empty rooms ("Before Six," 1988) tug at your heartstrings with nostalgia for better times gone by.

Missing vision

Those who champion Wyeth may place him in the great tradition of American realism, a line that includes such masters as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper. They, however, possessed an essential quality that eludes Wyeth: a truth of inner vision that informs their work from within. It is not a question of subject matter. Thousands of people paint ducks, but it takes a Homer to make a picture of ducks that is an allegory of cruelty and death ("Right and Left," 1909). Thousands of people paint portraits, but it takes an Eakins to put into a portrait the complex depths of the human soul ("Mrs. Edith Mahon," 1904). Thousands of people paint buildings, but it takes a Hopper to endow an ordinary row of buildings with monumentality and even nobility ("Early Sunday Morning," 1930).

Hopper is probably the American painter who throws Wyeth into sharpest contrast, because of their superficial similarity. The work of both artists has to do with the nobility of everyday life and everyday scenes, but Hopper succeeds in communicating that nobility in all its quiet grandeur because his work never seems contrived or arbitrary -- whereas Wyeth fails because his work always seems so. His compositions, his light, the poses of his subjects all reach for effect -- and most effectively when they least seem to.

His weakest pictures are those in which he descends closest to the illustrational, as in "Barefoot" (1992), in which the casually clad woman walks past a row of coats including a Revolutionary War uniform signifying the patriots who won her the rights she enjoys. Even Severens, an unstinting Wyeth admirer, acknowledges "a theaterlike quality here. "

Elsewhere the effect is more subtle. There is the towel draped across the railing in "Ship to Shore" (1986) to emphasize a sense of loneliness and loss; the bush growing out of a tire in "Two Family" (1977) to symbolize man's appreciation of the beauty of nature; the open window in "Petals" to create a sense of the unknowable depths of feeling in another human soul; the long shadows in "The Letter" (1979) to signify the inevitable end of things.

This 50-work exhibit, though it's largely devoted to late works (from the last 20 years of the 79-year-old artist's career), gives a good overview of his qualities: the subject matter, the mastery of technical means, and yes, the manipulation of emotion.

At that, as at all that he does, Wyeth is undoubtedly good. But at bottom his work is sentimental, cliche-ridden and terribly old-fashioned. It's an irony of sorts that while Japan gets a look at the BMA's works by Matisse, one of the greatest artists of the modern era, the walls the Matisses normally call home should be occupied by works whose essence is not only unmodern but anti-modern.

'Andrew Wyeth: America's Painter'

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Feb. 16

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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