The Wild Stillness At the Heart Of Andrew Wyeth

ANDREW WYETH: AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Introduction by Thomas Hoving

Bulfinch Press, 168 pp., $50

Popularity is a puzzling thing. At best it is a two-sided coin. In itself, it cannot be a criterion for quality or a genuine measure of achievement. It can even be taken as an unfortunate indication of appeal to a lowest common denominator. Yet immense, widespread popularity can also suggest that something surprisingly universal has surfaced or been recognized.

Some artists achieve popularity; some have it thrust upon them. Those who aim for it - who make it the purpose of their work - are surely indulging a cynical ploy. But those who find themselves becoming popular without seeking it are as likely to be amazed as anyone.

Andrew Wyeth is described, on the jacket blurb of a new book about him, as ''America's favorite artist.'' Presumably such a claim is unlikely to have been made if there was much fear of contradiction. But one is tempted to respond with a sympathetic, ''Well, that's not his fault.'' There really is little that is central to Wyeth's art - to his strange, fierce, yet disturbingly evasive realism - that can possibly be a calculated bid for popularity.

''Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography'' is a book that was published on the occasion of an exhibition last year in Kansas City, Mo., but with an appeal wider than the specific show and with a longer shelf life.

It is a well-produced book, with reproductions that suggest, once again, that Wyeth's intimately meticulous style translates with particular ease into book plates.

Thomas Hoving's introduction is energetic in its admiration and makes some interesting points. ''The real danger with Andrew Wyeth,'' he observes of the artist who once said that he had ''never painted anything that looked enough like the real thing, with all its pungency,'' ''is that in the future he may be interpreted incorrectly as an artist who imagined all his subjects.''

I suspect that Wyeth's art has always, in fact, been poised on an awkward knife edge between a fierce need for the literal and a no-less-fierce imagination. But this imagination is not to be confused with ''imagining things'' or mere fantasy. It is more a tendency to invest what his eyes report with strong feelings and associations of a subjective, personal kind - so personal, indeed, that the origins and aims of his paintings often have little to do with the undoubted resonance felt by large numbers of his admirers. They tend to find in his images their own range of sentiments and emotions, and these may be completely at odds with Wyeth's.

He, of course, knows this better than anyone. And it only goes to show that the common belief in ''realism'' - in ''painting what you see'' - as the most effective means of communication between painter and viewer is wide open to doubt.

In a discussion of ''Whale Rib'' - a Maine watercolor that Wyeth painted while lying, he remembers, on his side ''in a strong northeast gale'' - Hoving touches tellingly on its being both scrupulously physical and ''profoundly emotional and dramatic.''

''Only a true artist independent like Andrew Wyeth could have created something of such pure simplicity and maddening complexity, something so obvious yet so satisfyingly clandestine,'' Hoving writes.

That sentence seems to cleverly describe the paradoxical character of an enigmatic artist, allowing us to admit that in certain respects Wyeth's pictures are somewhat simple and obvious, but at the same time suggesting that they are complex and clandestine. It is only when you turn to the plate of ''Whale Rib'' itself that questions arise.

Here, instead of the expected emotion and drama, is the exhaustive dryness of technique that Wyeth has developed as a way of controlling his magical facility with brush and paint. Instead of overwhelming tempest, here is a bare land with precisely picked out rock and furze. The whitened whale rib angles up from the foreground as though it had been placed there with the calculated care of an item in a 17th-century Dutch still life. And dropping away in the distance is little more than a glimpse of indeterminate ocean with a touch of swell and spray.

In this book, the artist's statements (made vocally to Hoving) are printed next to the pictures. They are fascinating as insights into Wyeth's thinking - which is unpredictable and doggedly original. His words by ''Whale Rib,'' rather than the picture, convey the feelings and sensations at the back of his image-making: ''The power and the horror of the raging sea.'' And, ''The whale rib signifies to me the depth of the sea - something thrown up from so deep down. Frighteningly deep....''

There is no doubt of Wyeth's strength of feeling as he talked to Hoving - the sincerity and authenticity of the experiences he translates into his art. Yet some of his paintings express his bleakness of spirit, his quiescent remoteness, and self-contained puritanism far better than others. A painting like his lonely ''The Sweep,'' and even his translucent indoor portrait of the young girl Siri (''In a way Siri,'' he told Hoving, ''was never a figure to be painted, but more a burst of life.'') would be perfectly at home in an exhibition of Scandinavian realist painting of the late 19th century. This is not to say they are ''timeless'' - though they do avoid complicity with contemporary trends or tendencies - but more to suggest that Wyeth is a painter entirely out of his period.

Wyeth is certainly ''of his own place,'' if not of his own time. And within his old-fashioned pictorialism he explores, at his most successful, themes of life and death, of isolation, of strange close perspectives, of the unreality of realism, of familiarity, of held-in fastidious pleasure, of noiselessness and immobility. He is much better at stillness than he is at storms.

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