Opening the Window on Wyeth

In Maine, a modest exhibit brings a wealth of insight to Andrew's art

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's no simple task to present six decades of a prolific painter's work in two rooms and a small alcove. Especially if that painter is Andrew Wyeth.

But the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art's current exhibition of works by its distinguished neighbor isn't a cluttered and exhaustive attempt to catalog a long career. Instead, "Andrew Wyeth at 80: A Celebration" is eloquent, straight- forward, and tastefully understated.

For starters, the focus is on Maine. (Don't bother looking for paintings of Helga; she's from Chadds Ford, Pa.) Only 23 works, including landscapes, interiors, and portraits, are displayed on the gallery's walls, painted deep rust to complement the muted earth tones in Wyeth's works. Chief curator Jessica Nicoll didn't have to look far for nine of the works, already on hand in the museum's collection. In selecting watercolors, temperas, and drybrushes, she was mindful of "creating visual relationships" rather than rigidly chronicling Wyeth's career.

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The austere landscape and rugged characters surrounding the Wyeth family's summer home in Cushing, Maine, have been a continual source of inspiration for Andrew's art.

Though "Christina's World," perhaps Wyeth's most recognizable painting, didn't make the trip from its home at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Portland exhibit includes other familiar Wyeths.

Among them is the tempera "Wind From the Sea," rendered on the spur of the moment in Christina Olson's attic. "Of all my work at the Olson's," says Wyeth, "this seems to me to be the one that expresses a great deal without too much in it."

Such explanations from the artist appear alongside each work and are an especially welcome touch since Wyeth is so inaccessible to his admirers. They offer a rare glimpse into the private painter's thoughts and the emotion that drives him.

Observers often overlook the depth of feeling in Wyeth's works. Not Thomas Hoving. In one of several "tributes" to the painter appearing on the gallery walls, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains: "His style is usually called realism, but after years of studying his works and listening to him talk about his marvelous creations, I conclude that he is that, but even more. Andrew Wyeth is an emotionalist."

And in his authoritative biography, "Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life" (1996, Harper Collins), Richard Meryman writes of the painter's conviction that "emotion is the bottom line of art."

Mr. Meryman has kept in touch with Wyeth since he wrote about him for Life Magazine in 1964. He describes the artist as profoundly serious, yet impish. He explains that Wyeth's work illustrates his inner life, and his secrecy "is motivated by a desire to protect his feelings."

Despite his reclusive nature, Wyeth doesn't mind all the fuss being made over him these days, according to his family. In addition to the exhibit in Portland (through Oct. 13), up the coast in Rockland, an Andrew Wyeth retrospective is in full swing at the Farnsworth Art Museum (through Oct. 5) - also the home of a new Wyeth center, which will house more than 4,000 works by Andrew, his father, N.C., and his son Jamie.

In Praise of Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth's art resonates with Americans from all walks of life - from politicians to fellow painters. Here's what some of his admirers have to say about him:

'Quite simply, Andrew Wyeth is my closest friend - and the painter whose work I most admire. The father/son relationship goes out the window when we talk about one another's work. We are completely frank - as we have nothing to gain by being nice.'

- Jamie Wyeth

'Wyeth is the most unusual artist working today in the United States, which explains why he is so appreciated and despised. Who is this guy anyway, and what's he all about? He's complicated, a bit of an actor and definitely a trickster. He is also a bit cold - which is what comes, I think, from obsession. For Wyeth is obsessed. And with a wide spectrum of things, people and emotions.'

- Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrew Wyeth's works 'echo the light of late August, gold grass, ochre sky, a palette that haunts and yet comforts and reminds us of individual dignity and its relation to the natural world. He is a remarkable painter.'

- Jane Alexander, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

'Andrew Wyeth's art speaks to us as Americans in a way that few other bodies of work have. For me, it is about the eloquence of the simple, and about the snapshots of our memory - moments we all carry with us forever frozen in time.'

- Olympia J. Snowe, US senator from Maine

- Quotes provided by the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine

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