FROM OUR FILES: Andrew Wyeth - show probes the man and his art

Andrew Wyeth, who died today, was one of the best-known American artists of the 20th century. His intuition and allusive paintings were the focus of this 1976 exhibit review.

Bill Ingraham/AP/File
American artist Andrew Wyeth near his Chadds Ford, Penn., home in February, 1964. Wyeth, who was part of a three-generation family of artists including his father N.C. Wyeth and son Jamie Wyeth, found the settings of rural Pennsylvania and Maine were inspiration for many of his paintings.

From the December 9, 1976 issue of The Christian Science Monitor


Andrew Wyeth is probably the best-known 20th-century painter in the United States, with the possible exception of Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses. Whether it is familiarity or realism that has bred contempt in critical circles is difficult to judge, but paintings by the immortalizer of the lonely landscape and its intrepid inhabitants in Cushing, Maine, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, have been variously vilified as "sickenly popular, purposefully reactionary, and coldly trite," recounts Thomas P.F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Protesting that Wyeth has been the victim of too much packaging and labeling, Mr. Hoving pledges himself in his foreword to the catalog of the current Wyeth exhibition "to examine Wyeth very closely, without preconceptions or labels: to oberseve, to reveal, perhaps to complicate rather than simplify his work."


Mr. Hoving organized the exhibition and has brought an art-historical approach to bear upon Wyeth. Rumor has it that Mr. Hoving could not find anyone else at the Met willing or able to handle the exhibition, so he leaped into the breach with surprising alacrity and scholarly zeal.

The Met rarely mounts shows of contemporary artists, and Wyeth directors have insinuated that Mr. Hoving chose Wyeth to score a hit at the box office and to woo Wyeth's most devoted collector, Joseph Levine, who agreed to finance this exhibition of some 300 works and has all but promised his collection to the Met. Certainly the sale of two limited-edition portfolios is evidence of some commercial interest, but these days it is hardly fair to chastise a museum for wanting to make some money, or for occasionally mounting a show that appeals to the general public.

Whatever Mr. Hoving's motives, he has succeeded in putting together an unusual and engrossing show, which wil continue through February 6. The title of the exhibition is "Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons," and it includes several of the most famous paintings of the two families and two environments with which Wyeth conducted such a long painterly romance.


Practically everyone is familiar with Wyeth's portraits of Christina Olson and her brother, Alvaro, on their farm in Maine, the most celebrated being "Christina's World," and of Karl and Andrew Kuerner, farmers of German descent tilling the dark earth of Pennsylvania. Wyeth's landscapes are instantly recognizable: the monochromatic hills and fields in tones of brown, the snow scenes of endless white on white, the details so fine one can pick out individual blades of grass.

There are two major differences between this exhibition and previous Wyeth shows. In addition to the paintings, the exhibition consists of numerous studies. Pencil sketches and washes abound, tracing the development of each painting. Most illuminating are the 16 studies for "Brown Swiss" which began as a sketch of a Brown Swiss and ended as a cattleless "double portrait" of the Kuerners' house and everything going on inside the house, reflected in a pond and landscape "almost like the tawny brown pelt of a Brown Swiss bull," in Wyeth's own words.

This theme might sound too academic on paper, but it is quite exciting to the eye, for it affords the viewer a rare glimpse into the mysteries of the creative process. Instead of confronting a finished painting one scrutinizes the intracacies of its evolution - the adjustments of size and scale, the addition or deletion of detail, the metamorphosis of color and texture. In "Christina's World," for example, we see how the artist struggled to create just the right mood, an evocation of fatigue and longing, in the crook of her arm.


The other innovative element in this exhibition is the importance of the catalog, which in some respects is more interesting than the exhibition. In keeping with his scholarly approach Mr. Hoving engaged Wyeth in a series of taped conversations over the course of five days. The catalog is a distillation of those conversations, Wyeth's first major discussion of his art in 15 years.

One could complain that the heavy reliance of the visual on the verbal for explication reflects a creeping modernist tendency in the face of so much inscrutable art, but the fact remains that Wyeth's commentary deserves to stand as one of the most poetic art-historical documents of our times.

Wyeth is an artist of prodigious intution and self-awareness, who can uncover the emotional roots of his paintings with a sensitivity surpassing that of any observer. For example, he compared his beloved Maine and Pennsylvania: "Maine to me is almost like going to the surface of the moon. I feel things are just hanging on the surface and it's all going to blow away. In Maine, everythng seems to be dwindling with terrific speed."

"In Pennsylvania, there's a substantial foundation underneath, of depths and dirt and earth. Up in Maine I feel it's all dry bones and desiccated sinews. That's actually the difference between the two places to me."


One can feel in his Maine paintings the brittle quality of the air, the boniness of the landscape, the austerity of the life. And in the Pennsylvania paintings the dark, heavy soddenness of the earth and atmosphere is palpable to all the senses. This is partly a result of his microscopic attention to detail and partly of his medium.

Wyeth paints most often in tempera, praising it because "there's no limitation. The only limitation is yourself. Tempera is, in a sense, like building, really building in great layers the way the earth itself was built. It all depends on what you have in the depths of your being....I really like tempera because it has a cocoonlike feeling of dry lostness - almost a lonely feeling."

Although Wyeth is a realist in the technical sense, the reality he paints is an intensely personal one. His subtle, restrained, allusive paintings are charged with thinly veiled emotion, which is nowhere more perceptible than in his portraits of the Kuerners and the Olsons. Wyeth is a master of psychological nuance, and, like the great naturalistic writer Thomas Mann, he can convery as much about a person through a gesture or the minutae of his environment as his entire image.


In some of Wyeth's most unforgettable portraits the subject is not even there. He told Mr. Hoving, "I think a person permeates a spot, and that lost presence makes the environment timeless to me. A lost presense keeps the area alive." Thus, a room, a house, a table setting, such as Karl Kuerner's in "Ground Hog Day" become "the very essence of the man who wasn't there."

In this sense Wyeth's painting is the epitome of the "less is more" precept, an application of measure and effacement that the artist extends even to himself. So intense is his involvement and his control of its expression that Wyeth loses himself in his work and can say quite matter-of-factly, "I don't think I exist really as a person, particularly, I really don't and I'd rather not."

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