Wyeth's works were accessible to all Americans


January 18, 2009|By Karen Houppert | Karen Houppert,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Andrew Wyeth, who died last week at 91, might be the one contemporary American artist that every American knows. They may not think they know his work, but they do.

How about that cute little picture of a yellow lab curled in the middle of a four-poster bed that hangs in your vet's office? Andrew Wyeth.

How about that framed poster of an open window - shade half-drawn, lace curtain billowing - that the country-kitchen diner on the corner displays next to a real window, lace curtain billowing in a life-imitates-art tribute? Andrew Wyeth.

Or the calendar that your sailing friend has on his kitchen wall, the cover depicting a rocky New England shoreline, a white picket fence and a towering lighthouse? Andrew Wyeth.

And then there's the postcard your colleague has tacked above her desk, a reproduction of Christina's World that someone visiting New York's Museum of Modern Art sent her last year. Andrew Wyeth.

It's not every artist who claims a spot in the National Gallery and your dentist's office, inspiring equal parts admiration from the general public and vitriolic rants from the art world.

"In a way, these are two sides of the same coin," says art historian John Wilmerding, who is an emeritus professor of American art at Princeton University and has been a trustee of the Wyeth Foundation since the 1960s. "That is to say, what made him popular also brought disdain. His easy accessibility through realism naturally appeals to Americans who have a long tradition of not wanting to be deceived by artists. You know, the way someone looks at Jackson Pollock and says, 'My child could have done that thing.' "

What impresses Americans most is Wyeth's technical facility. "The sheer dexterity of being able to paint so well awes them and Wyeth's virtuosity here led to a lot of admiration," Wilmerding says.

He was a "facile craftsman of the ordinary" but at the same time, Wilmerding explains he bothered certain art critics "because he didn't fit an easy niche in the history of modernism."

That made him a lightning rod.

But Wyeth also figured into a time-honored high-art/low-art debate. The resident of Chadds Ford, Pa., employed a realist style that paid homage to rural Americana simplicity and edged close to literal illustration - in that little is left to interpretation. That appeals to a public inadequately exposed to art and lacking confidence in its interpretive powers.

While often compared to Norman Rockwell, Wyeth actually eschews Rockwell's cheerful nostalgia in favor of the lonely underbelly of pastoral America. But we don't have to stretch much to make the connections he wants. Isolation. Yearning. Absence. His themes are writ large in the stark browns, grays and greens of the nearly monochromatic Pennsylvania and Maine landscapes he was so fond of.

When it comes to Wyeth's portraits, these themes are conveyed via subjects that almost always look away. We Americans aren't a deeply introspective bunch, so we look out at the world to find our place in it. Wyeth's subjects seek something from the landscape, questioning.

"And why do we keep asking these questions?" Wilmerding asks. "Wyeth struck a kind of nerve in the second half of the last century. And it has to do with these encoded meanings in his paintings, whether it is brooding about mortality or whatever. And that is where the important pictures of his will continue to haunt - and provoke us."

And Wyeth's provocation cut a wide swath, especially in the art world. It isn't simply his commercial appeal that rubbed the art world wrong. After all, look at Andy Warhol, a self-described art "whore" who happily mass-produced his work in a factory and cheerfully sold out to the highest bidder. And plenty of art critics loved this pop artist for his brassy commercialism.

So why did Wyeth's commercial success irritate the art world so? Maybe his art, with its marketable, romantic nod to hardworking Americans, was a symbol of a more conventional, conservative and less complicated era that did not require reconceptualizing form, color and concept - nor re-educating the public about the new rules.

His art was accessible, his life in rural Pennsylvania unremarkable. He voted for President Richard M. Nixon and waved a flag. (This, at a time when artists such as Jasper Johns were irreverently painting the stars and stripes on newspaper, David Hammons was seeing it in Pan-African colors, and Dread Scott, in his exhibit What is the Proper Way..., was asking viewers to step on it.)

The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman says Wyeth saw himself as a rule-breaker, a radical of sorts who stuck to realism as the modern art world heaved and shifted beneath his feet: "And as bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservatives' paradoxical idea of cultural disobedience through traditional behavior."

Looking back, perhaps Wyeth's greatest legacy to the art world was his consistent adherence to the realist tradition: He provided something to push against.

And as time passes, like a 20-something easing up on the knee-jerk rebellion against his parents, the art world may take a second look. Wilmerding believes this closer inspection will prove revealing.

"The key Wyeth works, whichever dozen one might select, are going to hold up in the history of American realism for a long time as great works - and will establish or confirm his reputation as a kind of titan or exemplar of the American realist tradition," he says, asserting that his stature in the 20th century puts him, along with Edward Hopper, at the peak of what realism can do. "What are the expressive possibilities of realism? That rhetorical question is what Wyeth played with."

And, ever true to the sense of grim foreboding that permeated his every work, his life imitated his art Friday. He died on a cold, snowy, moody, winter day, Wilmerding says. "Right in the middle of what I call Wyeth weather."

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