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Profound or provincial, American realism searches for meaning

By Theodore F. WolffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 1985



New York

FOR a few years after World War II, American painting stumbled about looking for its bearings. Regionalism was dead, as was social-action painting, and the few independent voices still around from prewar days lacked the will or the clout to redirect American art. Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, and a number of others continued on, unaffected by all the turmoil around them, and the few newcomers, such as Jack Levine, Morris Graves, and Hyman Bloom, who might have sparked an American Renaissance, were either too private or not abstract enough to capture the fancy of the importan t tastemakers.

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Abstract Expressionism solved the problem by assuming command and bringing the center of world art from Paris to New York. While that may have been good news to those who accepted the new movement, it was close to the kiss of death for those who did not.

Except for a handful of established independents -- and even those artists suffered to a degree for a while -- anyone who refused to climb on the bandwagon of the Abstract Expressionists was doomed to near-oblivion as the 1950s began.

Among those most affected by this wave of art-world dogma was a young painter by the name of Andrew Wyeth, who had first made a name for himself in 1937 as a watercolorist and who had, by the early 1950s, established himself as the most popular of all American painters and the most visible exponent of nonmodernism in the United States.

All this, of course, did not sit well with those who felt that everything representational in art was dangerously reactionary, and that popularity was the ultimate proof of artistic mediocrity. If Wyeth was mentioned at all in the critical literature of the postwar years, it was to be dismissed as irrelevant or as nothing more than talented illustration.

In fact, he was then, and he continues to be now, one of America's very best artists, and one of its most committed.

His problem over the years has been as much one of image as of substance, for he has been so undeviatingly realistic and ``rural'' in his work that it has been easy for urban critics to dismiss him out of hand as a latter-day Yankee provincial. In that, they could not have been more mistaken. By focusing on his uncanny ability to reproduce the complex appearances of nature and on his mildly melancholy, subtly underplayed ``country'' themes, they have missed the major point of his art: that it exists to project the artist's profound respect for what physical appearance cloaks, evokes, or can imply.

Realism, for Wyeth, has always been a means, not an end -- a method of conveying subtle and often troubling questions about mortality and alienation, and of projecting intuitions about order, virtue, character, integrity, and the reasons for human existence. As a result, he stands dramatically apart from most of his non-urban contemporaries, the majority of whom are more inclined to wholeheartedly celebrate nature's wonders than to engage and redirect them in a profoundly personal search for meaning.