It is a curious fact that, although picture-loving Americans believe Andrew Wyeth to be a traditional painter, the artist confides to friends that he is an abstract one. In his book, Andrew Wyeth, Richard Meryman states this about him: ''He judges his own work by how forcefully the abstract undercurrent makes itself felt.''
It would seem that the champions of traditional art should bestir themselves and try to resolve this contradiciton, this impasse. The dictionary does not offer much help in its attempt to explain what abstraction is - in effect it says it is that which is ''thought of apart from any particular object or thing;'' that it is ''not representational;'' that it is ''not easy to understand.''
All pictorial artists are, in a sense, abstractionists, because it is a far-flung act of abstraction - or magic - to place the likeness of a physical object onto a small piece of paper or canvas. The practice of abstraction may, in part, be thought of as response to qualities unseen or indefinite, such as the phenomenon of gravity, or the invisibility of sound.
Some of us think of our own planet as being a feeling, a giant cell, that is floating in a sentient universe. Wyeth's abstraction appears to be based on the premise that the earth has invisible nerves as well as countless, visible, breathing leaf-lungs; and instead of stating this belief in words, he expresses it in his paintings. The extraordinary care that he has bestowed on the details of nature, as well as man-fashioned objects, supports this observation. Wyeth, painting with a brush, is the equivalent of Thoreau writing with a pen. He is like a continuation of Thoreau, and some of his pun-loving friends call him a ''Thoreauback.''
An oakleaf brown seems to have been Thoreau's favorite color, and almost all of Wyeth's work is dominated by gradations of this hue. One suspects that he has spent many hours in winter communicating with brown oak leaves, sere grass, and other winter-colored growth. Thoreau once described his falling in love with a shrub oak; while Wyeth acknowledges in nearly all his paintings his deep affection for everything that is brown, russet, tawny, sere. It is as if he were thanking earth's brown soil for providing these ''wholesome'' colors, as Thoreau called them.
Wyeth, using abstraction as if it were vital nerves of nature, is able to transcend weather conditions. There is a sensation of breathing in some of his pictures. Certainly there is a beckoning of barns, awareness of fenceposts, depths of animal fur, and ecstasy of aloneness. All these qualities might be called emotions of abstraction. Then if any person is ''against'' abstraction, he is also against the strange dreams he has while sleeping at night, against disfigurations in the mirage of his memory.
Notice the illusion of realism Wyeth gives to pails, posts, shingles, rocks, wagonwheels, flowers, houses and their people. Yet all these things are subject to the wonderful, various perspectives of abstraction, which can give a rowboat's straight oars in water the illusion of being crooked. An echo is an abstraction of sound; and distance might be called an abstraction of vision. Wyeth, very conscious of the nerves of nature, always tries to incorporate them in his paintings. And everything has been caressed by a great delicacy - Wyeth's - that is delicate as the haze on the skin of a blueberry.
However, Wyeth can be as brilliant as a shard of crystal. He must have had an image of this in his mind when he painted a profile portrait, named ''Gunning Rocks.'' This could be described as being a abstraction because of the seeming paradox it contains. It records a man's features that have become so refined, so elegant through character, work, or direction, one would suspect him of being a great poet, philosopher or statesman. Yet one can see that he is a genuine workman wearing an old, worn coat, a man successfully embedded in the atmosphere of Maine. Wyeth must have felt that he was etching with paint instead of steel when he did this picture.
The difference between a distinctly-heard abstractionist and one almost unheard, like Wyeth, is that the first employs the more obvious, exterior methods to obtain his effects, whereas Wyeth, loving all nature, reaches down into its very molecules to attain his.
So here we have, in American art, this circumstance of a painter being honored for a quality of traditionalism that he feels he does not exercise. Wyeth's work is a manifestation of nature, not of any school - not even the school of abstraction. If anything, he might be called a ''natural'' abstractionist, because he is more adjusted to nature than people. Like a stone, he can stand still. And like the turning earth, he can progress, it seems, without seeming to move.
Thoreau wrote: ''The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.'' Could it possibly be that Wyeth's work is so brilliant, nature-perfect, subdued, subtly different, so very abstract, that it is beyond the comprehension, or even the consciousness of some viewers? If this is so, it is still art-truth, art-bread, art-history to a great number of us.