Of means and ends and Andrew Wyeth

I don't understand those people who insist Andrew Wyeth is nothing but a hack or an illustrator - especially since some of them are serious art professionals and should know better. And neither do I understand those who consider him the best American artist of the century.

But, most of all, I cannot understand those who think him either a fraud or great - or those who condemn him out of hand - without really looking carefully at his work.

The fact of the matter is that he is one of the 20 or so best American artists of the century, and that his paintings, watercolors, and drawings will hang in our museums for a long time to come. The future will almost certainly not see him as a dominant 20th-century figure, however - or even as a truly representative one - for his art will always seem closer to 19th-century values and ideals than to 20th-century ones. He will be admired and respected for his talent, dedication, and integrity, for the fact that he produced some of the most sensitively conceived and executed American paintings of the century. But he will also be viewed as an artist who looked backward in time to what used to be, rather than grappling directly with what is or trying to shape what will be.

Wyeth's art is tart, mildly melancholy, discreet, and shrewdly underplayed. It smacks of October in New England and triggers memories of cool, crisp apples eaten outdoors, of the smell of pine and frost in the air, and of dreams of what might or should have been. It is full of subtle tensions and aches, and of hints and clues that life is hardly ever a bed of roses.

It is also exquisitely painted but with a kind of dryness that permits no virtuoso brushwork and absolutely no flamboyance. Nothing smiles in Wyeth's world. Everything is restrained, controlled, and kept precisely in its place. Color exists in his art but mostly as deep greens, browns, grays, silvers, and ochres, with the brighter colors kept in reserve to be judiciously used as accents or as hints of warmth.

Although Wyeth has spawned a host of imitators, none of them has perceived the true nature and deeper dimensions of his art. They have focused on his uncanny ability to record the complex appearances of nature, and on his technique. They have failed to understand that what the eye is enchanted by and the finger itches to touch in a Wyeth painting is only the topmost layer of a very complex work of art whose worth rests ultimately on a deeply held and consistently sustained vision of life and art.

This vision represents a perfect balance between respect for physical appearance and a wondering sense of awe for what that physical appearance cloaks , suggests, or can imply. On the one hand, it is coolly, almost clinically objective, and, on the other, it projects a subtle but persistent ache for greater stability, meaning, and significance.

Both qualities exist equally in Wyeth's art and are the main reasons for its sense of equilibrium and formal integrity. No one today composes more sensitively or exquisitely than Wyeth, and no one works harder to precisely define a mood. And yet all this attention to ''accuracy,'' composition, and mood exists only to carry his art to the absolute frontier of what he knows in order to make it reverberate with intimations and intuitions of those larger realities he senses but cannot define.

Wyeth's art is infinitely fragile. Its existence often hangs by a thread. He may work for months on an image whose ''meaning'' hinges on something as fugitive as the subtle movement of an old lace curtain in a gentle breeze, or whose entire point depends upon the perfect placement of one tiny spot of filtered sunlight in a darkened room.

Realism, for Wyeth, is a means, not an end. It is only the stage upon which his actors - and they can be houses, trees, animals, and boulders as well as human beings - exist to raise subtle and often troubling questions about mortality, loneliness, or alienation, or to project intuitions about order, virtue, character, integrity, and human purpose. A respect for virtue and character, in fact, is as central and essential to Wyeth's art as the pigment he uses and the subjects he paints. In this he is very exceptional among contemporary realists, most of whom address themselves exclusively to the complexities and nuances of nature's appearance; reshape nature to conform to a formalist or museum ideal; or subvert nature to support sentimental or allegorical themes.

Not so Wyeth, whose insistence upon the ''simple'' virtues and upon character in his art places him closer to Emerson, Thoreau, and Eakins than to any of his major 20th-century contemporaries. This emphasis is apparent, I suspect, to the many individuals who respond strongly to his art, and it is also apparent to the art world at large. I'm quite convinced, in fact, that it is his insistence upon these qualities, quite as much as his style and approach to painting, that continues to alienate him from the ''serious'' art community. We may be ready once again to accept strictly representational art, but we are still too close to the sentimental and moralistic excesses of Victorian and Regionalist art to forgive any hint of ethical or moral preaching in our art.

But Wyeth no more preaches at us than does an old mill, a piece of Shaker furniture, or an elderly gentleman sitting quietly in a rocking chair. Wyeth's feelings about and commitments toward virtue, character, integrity, and order are intrinsic to his art, and were not grafted onto it for pedagogical or moralistic purposes. He may hold dear and stand for qualities in his art that our society no longer considers crucial, but I'm not at all certain that what he wants to share with us isn't precisely what we need more of today.

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