Andrew Wyeth has fresh eyes for old haunts

Cataract surgery helps 86-year-old artist to see familiar world

February 29, 2004|By Tom Infield | Tom Infield,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- He still spends most of the year in Chadds Ford, Pa., the crossroads village where he was born in 1917 amid the far-off clamor of World War I. He still occasionally can be seen wandering the hills and watery meadows above the Brandywine River. And when the light is right, he still hastens to his easel in the old schoolhouse with those large, north-facing windows.

At 86, and still perhaps America's best-loved artist, Andrew Wyeth is seeing his familiar, small world with new vision -- literally.

Cataract surgery, performed at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, has allowed him to see details and colors with restored clarity.

"He's thrilled," said his son, fellow painter Jamie Wyeth. "He works constantly every day and is more excited than he was 30 years ago."

In the semi-seclusion of Chadds Ford, where he has continued to find inspiration in the rural scenes he tramped as a boy, Wyeth is enjoying the bright autumn of a long, honored career.

His improved eyesight, together with surgery several years ago to improve flexibility in his right hand, which he uses to hold his brush, has reinvigorated his enthusiasm for painting in his ninth decade.

Wyeth, who shuns interviews, is described as looking forward to a major new exhibit of his work, the first since a New York show in 1998. The High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, is seeking to pull it together in late 2005 or 2006.

The show is yet unannounced, but museum spokeswoman Laura Shankman said, "We are working on organizing an exhibit."

After a likely run in Atlanta, the exhibit could travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has never had a major Wyeth show, even though it owns a number of Wyeth works.

Norman Keyes, spokesman for the Philadelphia museum, said it was in discussion with the High Museum. Nothing is definite, he said.

Wyeth has long been one of the public's favorite high-art artists. In 1970, he was the first living painter to have a solo exhibit at the White House.

Best known for somewhat somber pictures of stone barns and stucco houses, of winter shadows and leafless trees, Wyeth gained a suddenly racy image in 1987 with the revelation of his "Helga" nudes.

The cover of Newsweek cried out: "Andrew Wyeth's secret obsession: For 15 years he drew the same woman and hid the pictures in an attic. Now they're being sold for millions."

Although he has been widely exhibited by museums since the 1930s, Wyeth has not always been as much a favorite of art critics as of the public.

The New York Times dismissed his last major show, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as bleak and monotonous. The museum, it said, "might almost have written `Give the guy a chance' across the walls."

`Critical bias'

"There has been a New York critical bias against Wyeth for a very long time," said Tom Styron, director of the Greenville County Museum of Art, in Greenville, S.C., which owns 32 Wyeth paintings.

"Andy's popularity kind of hurt him in terms of being considered a serious artist," said Bo Bartlett, a painter who gravitated to the Philadelphia area from Georgia to be in Wyeth's orbit.

Wyeth's financial success and the relative isolation of Chadds Ford -- and of the island in Maine where he spends warm-weather months -- have given him the freedom to paint exactly as he chooses.

Situated 33 miles southwest of Philadelphia and 13 miles north of Wilmington, Del., Chadds Ford was far from almost anywhere a century ago, when Wyeth's father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, bought 18 acres there.

Today, though increasingly hemmed in by suburban growth, the village is still little more than a traffic light on fast-paced, four-lane U.S. 1.

"There's almost nothing here -- which I like," Wyeth said in Snow Hill, an autobiographical film produced several years ago by his wife, Betsy, and directed by Bartlett. "I think I'm more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall or snow drifts."

Chadds Ford is Wyeth's favorite place and his favorite subject.

"I think he wants to focus on what he is most familiar with, and that happens to be a few square miles of the Pennsylvania countryside," Jamie Wyeth said.

Again and again, Wyeth has returned to the same subjects. He did 240 pictures of Helga Testorf, a German redhead who worked as a nurse for one of Wyeth's neighbors, Karl Kuerner. He has drawn or painted nearly 1,000 images of the Kuerner Farm, with its brown barn and square, cream-colored house.

"He has taken his own backyard and he has made it timeless; he has made it universal," Bartlett said.

Viewers, he said, connect with the "sense of loneliness" in the paintings.

Since 1971, with the opening of the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford has been the major venue in the region for seeing Wyeth art.

From October through May, when Wyeth is home from Maine, visitors may catch a glimpse of the artist, a recognizable figure with snowy hair and a tick-tock-clock-pendulum walk.

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