THE privacy-loving painter Andrew Wyeth would no more want a group of admirers watching him work than he would want to move from Maine to Mars. But an agreement between the reclusive artist and a museum near his New England home might have the effect of revealing the creative process behind his paintings.
The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, is well known to Wyeth fans. Its long relationship with the family began in 1951, when the museum hosted the first major exhibit of Andrew Wyeth's art. Today, more than 40 Wyeth works share gallery space with Maine-related art by other American masters such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Edward Hopper.
But the museum on Penobscot Bay will soon offer even more: A Wyeth study center, scheduled to open in a historic church adjacent to the museum in the summer of 1998, will provide background on Wyeth in the form of original drawings, art criticism, and computerized access to images.
Research related to Andrew Wyeth is expected to be particularly extensive. Museum director Christopher Crosman says the center will present ''an unparalleled opportunity to observe and study a great artist's working process and its evolution over more than half a century. In the face of Wyeth's finished works, with their sense of immaculate reality, the studies in this collection also suggest how wrenching, messy, abstract, and mysterious the act of creation really is.''
New galleries are also planned, as the museum is about to acquire the significant Andrew and Betsy Wyeth collection of Maine works. This includes paintings, drawings, and studies by Wyeth, along with art by his father, N.C. Wyeth; his son, Jamie Wyeth; and other family members.
Details about the collection, including its precise size, are still sketchy, but the museum does know that it will include such familiar Andrew Wyeth works as ''The Patriot,'' ''Adrift,'' and ''Geraniums.''
''We'd been hinting for a long time that the Maine work should be seen where it was created,'' Mr. Crosman said recently by phone. ''The work has to do with a sense of place.''
It's no secret that Maine is important to the Wyeths. Their canvases reflect a profound respect for its simplicity -- from thoughtful renderings of the landscape to livestock to grackles.
Andrew spent boyhood summers frolicking on Maine's shores, and for many years he and his wife have divided their time between country homes in Chadds Ford, Pa., and Cushing, Maine. Jamie lives on Maine's tiny Southern Island.
''I don't go to Maine particularly because of the salt air or the water. In fact, I like Maine in spite of its scenery,'' Andrew Wyeth once said, explaining that the state's ''basic country'' quality and its austerity have always meant the most to him.
Now, thanks to Andrew and Betsy, Wyeth aficionados will be able to learn more about the place that resonates so deeply with this prolific family, and about how the Wyeths' artistic vision is shaped by the land's character.
* A separate exhibition of Andrew Wyeth's paintings and studies of the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, will be shown this summer (July1 to Oct. 29) at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine. The house, which was the site in 1948 of Andrew's most famous work, ''Christina's World,'' was acquired by the museum in 1992.