A new window into Wyeth

A new exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum reveals American painter Andrew Wyeth as far more complex than he has often been portrayed. Now if the critics would just agree.

During the course of his 70-year career, Andrew Wyeth has been hailed as an American master and dismissed as a glorified illustrator. He has been likened, variously, to Albrecht Durer, Winslow Homer, even Jackson Pollack, and lumped together with the kitschiest limners of sentimental landscapes and saucer-eyed waifs.

Through it all, the reclusive 88-year-old painter has steadfastly kept working, impervious to both praise and criticism.

At least once a decade for the past 40 years, a major museum exhibition has rekindled the storm of debate around Wyeth. Now, a massive retrospective opening this weekend at Atlanta's High Museum is aimed at quieting the dissent. The show inaugurates a $109 million expansion of the institution by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, a project that more than doubles the museum's temporary and permanent exhibition space and enlarges the High's influence as an art venue nationally.

With more than 100 tempera paintings, watercolors, and drawings stretching from 1934 through 2002, including works never exhibited before, the Wyeth retrospective reveals an artist far more complex than the creator of benign country scenes he has long been known as. The exhibit "Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic," and accompanying 220-page catalog, present the painter as the author of a rich metaphoric vocabulary used to address issues of loss, memory, and the fragility of life.

Curator Anne Classen Knutson, the main organizer of the exhibit, says the time is right to reassess Wyeth's work. "People are ready now to look at this guy," says Ms. Knutson, an independent curator based in Atlanta. "It's pretty clear that people haven't looked closely at his art. If you get into him, there's a lot more to [see]."

Knutson's conviction may not convince an established guard of critics who have long rejected the painter. In 1987, prior to becoming art critic for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Wyeth isn't exactly a painter. He is a gifted illustrator for reproduction, which improves his dull originals." That same year, conservative art maven Hilton Kramer huffed that Wyeth's painting "is the kind of art that gives the realist aesthetic a bad name." Robert Storr, a professor at New York University and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, recently told ARTNews that Wyeth's paintings "have no insight, no daring."

Knutson is impatient with the continued resistance to the artist. "I'm sick of critics looking at one or two images and dismissing him," she says.

On the heels of Rockwell

Knutson was recruited to organize the exhibit by High director Michael Shapiro, following her successful 1999 retrospective of Norman Rockwell for the museum. That show traveled and helped raise Rockwell's reputation among the art cognoscenti. Following its four-month run in Atlanta, the Wyeth exhibition will move to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its only other venue.

"Michael said he was looking for a new angle" on Wyeth, Knutson recalls. "It had to be very different from other exhibits." Rejecting the notion of a "greatest-hits show," Knutson used the exhibition to posit a new interpretation of the painter.

The show focuses on what Knutson terms Wyeth's "object-based works" - pictures that emphasize places, animals, or things over people. Although his best-known works, including "Christina's World" and the series of intimate portraits known as the Helga pictures, are centered around a human presence, Knutson maintains that "objects are more important to Wyeth than people. I think he's more comfortable with things."

("Christina's World," the iconic depiction of a woman sprawled in a field and gazing up at a distant farmstead, is conspicuously absent from the High exhibit. Citing conservation concerns, New York's Museum of Modern Art declined to lend the painting.)

Knutson says that after studying thousands of Wyeth's images - his oeuvre is said to number around 13,000 works - she identified three motifs that dominate the pictures throughout his career. These recurring subjects - natural things, vessels, and thresholds - became the armature for the show. The exhibit traces how the artist moved from literal description of these motifs in his early years, to transmuting the external world into a private language of metaphor and symbol.

Through depictions of natural things - birds, trees, rocks, and the rural landscape, usually in the dark months of the year - Wyeth drives deep into the transience of life. The artist divides his time between his farm in Chadds Ford, Penn., and the seacoast near Rockland, Maine, but his images rise above specific locale. A fearsome austerity underscores the paintings. Whether depicting dried corn stalks, a dead crow, or seashells beside a small cove, Wyeth's work is at once unflinching and elegiac.

Critic and novelist Brian O'Doherty has identified Wyeth as a "rural artist," whose subject matter is "that loneliness, that eeriness, that strangeness that applies to the country." "I think he is grievously misjudged by city people," says Mr. O'Doherty, who is himself a distinguished conceptual artist exhibiting under the name Patrick Ireland. Wyeth's rural sensibility is alien to urban-based culture, O'Doherty says - "What people see in Wyeth is sentiment, but country sentiment is a cover for all kinds of brutalities."

The 'sounds' of his paintings

A key to Wyeth's ruralness, O'Doherty notes, is his art's self-consciousness, cultivated by the solitude of the country. Wyeth's pictures capture the haunting stillness of country places, underscored by the minimalist music of dry leaves rasping against branches or winter grass rustling in the wind. These sounds, projected throughout his paintings, add to the art's melancholic sense of loss.

In Knutson's view, Wyeth's themes of loss grow out of a lifelong grief at the death of his father, the prominent illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who was killed in an auto accident when his son was 29. The father appears often in Wyeth's work, both as an absence and a ghostly presence. Wyeth's preoccupation with thresholds, doorways, sills, and passageways evoke feelings of transition and movement between worlds. The energy in "Wind from the Sea" moves restlessly in two directions, the lace curtains delicately billowing into the room, while a thin road retreats in the distance.

Knutson finds metaphors of transience in the motif of vessels as well, from a rowboat stowed in a hay loft to the empty basket and bucket that punctuate the stark "Alvaro and Christina." Wyeth's severity is expressed in his technique as well. The show emphasizes his paintings in egg tempera, in which pigment is suspended in an emulsion of egg yolk. The medium is slow and painstaking, stressing control over exploration. Wyeth is a virtuoso of the small brush, building huge paintings stroke by flickering stroke. The results are as solid and impenetrable as granite.

Questioned if Wyeth will come to be remembered as an American master, Knutson demurs. "Ask me in a hundred years," she says. For now, the curator's chief intention is to expand the discussion. "I want people to take a good hard look," she says. "If I can change perceptions...." she continues, and her voice trails off on a filament of hope.

Finding Wyeth

Selected Andrew Wyeth paintings can be found in museums around the country, including the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For larger collections:

Brandywine River Museum
Chadds Ford, Penn.
(610) 388-2700

Farnsworth Art Museum
Rockland, Maine
(207) 596-6457

Frank E. Fowler (Wyeth representative)
Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
(423) 821-3081

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