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The Wyeths’ whys and why nots

By Bob Hicks
December 11, 2017
Visual Art

After spending some quality time with the animals in the print show Kingdom Animalia: Animals in Print from Dürer to Picasso one day last week, I moved up to the second floor of the Portland Art Museum’s main Belluschi building to take another look at The Wyeths: Three Generations, a traveling show that continues through Jan. 8. When I first saw it shortly after it opened in early October the special exhibition galleries were packed with visitors young and old, most seeming genuinely interested in the works of father N.C., son Andrew, and grandson Jamie. On a lazy Wednesday afternoon last week the crowd was much thinner, though still steady. But if the thrill wasn’t exactly gone, it had hit a lull.

Andrew Wyeth, “Morning at Kuerners,” n.d., watercolor, Collection of Melvin “Pete” Mark and Mary Kridel Mark. T2017.84.7. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

The Wyeths, which is from the Bank of America collection and came into being largely because this year is the centenary of Andrew Wyeth’s birth, is a curious show, genuinely interesting but in a much smaller way than the shouting makes it out to be. The works by Andrew are both the strongest and weakest part of the exhibit – strongest because he’s much the best artist of the three; weakest because he’s underrepresented, and his best work isn’t here. (A much deeper traveling show focusing on him alone, Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, is at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 15.)

The Wyeth clan, and Andrew in particular, holds an equally curious position in the history of American art, beloved by much of the public, despised by much of the art establishment, and that fact feeds into whatever fascination this show holds. The last time I visited the Museum of Modern Art, a little over a year ago, one thing hadn’t changed. There on the fifth floor landing, where the escalator spills out to what amounts to a hallway leading to the drinking fountains and restrooms around the corner, hung Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, one of the museum’s most famous attractions and also a painting that for decades MoMA has seemed almost ashamed to have in its collection.

Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), “Victoria,” 1999, watercolor on paper, Bank of America Collection © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s been that way almost from the beginning, in 1948, when MoMA bought Christina’s World for $1,800. A lot of people, intent on finding Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Vest or Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy or The Dream, rush on by into the main galleries without even noticing that this American icon is hanging there. It’s a bit like missing out on a chance to meet Harry Potter because the kid’s aunt and uncle stuck him inside a cupboard beneath the stairs, and, well, how were you to know?

Jamie Wyeth (American, born 1946), “The Tempest, A Triptych,” 1999, watercolor, gouache, and varnish highlights on gray archival board, Bank of America Collection © 2017 Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

A hundred years after his birth, Wyeth remains a divisive figure in the American art world, although the rancor is nothing like what it was in the 1960s and ’70s, when Wyeth seemed to stand for everything the contemporary art world detested. At times the contempt verged on the ridiculous: Critic Dave Hickey declared that Wyeth worked in a palette of “mud and baby poop.” (I wonder, not altogether idly, what he thought of Rembrandt’s shades of brown.) Yet even then Wyeth had his stout defenders, and also those who saw both sides of the coin. In 1977 art historian Robert Rosenblum declared that Wyeth was both the most underrated and most overrated artist of the century.

In a way, MoMA’s right. Christina’s World is no Starry Night or Sleeping Gypsy (although, how many paintings are?). And in a deeper way, MoMA’s wrong. Wyeth is an important American artist with a singular vision, and Christina’s World, although it’s not his “best” painting (as, for that matter, The Scream isn’t indisputably Munch’s “best,” or the Mona Lisa Leonardo’s, or Madame X Sargent’s, or American Gothic Grant Wood’s) it is a genuinely iconic work that has captured the public’s enduring admiration. Wyeth had the good or bad fortune to be out of tune with the prevailing art winds of his times, and to be personally unacceptable as well: an agrarian regionalist in a time of urban internationalism, a figurative artist (although always with a stretch and a willingness to rearrange reality) in a time of ascendant abstraction, a careerist who largely bypassed the New York careerist game, a fellow known to have actually voted Republican. Worse, the public adored him.

A panorama of N.C. Wyeth’s books and paintings, with his 1937 oil on hardboard “Eight Bells” on the left. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Three Generations opens with a large gallery devoted to the work of the family patriarch, N.C. Wyeth, who studied with the famous American illustrator Howard Pyle and is best known for his vivid illustrations for adventure novels such as Treasure Island, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, and Rip Van Winkle. His style was bold, colorful, and action-packed, much more fascinated with the expression of movement than, for instance, the more minimalist and pensive Rockwell Kent’s. N.C.’s work shows to advantage here, revealing both his considerable strengths and his drawbacks. It’s fascinating to see several of his book illustrations in their large original oil versions, sometimes with copies of the book versions below. They’re writ large, like stories bursting out.

N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882–1945), “Gnomes Bowling,” 1921, oil on canvas, Bank of America Collection

They are also very much illustrations – visual evocations of literary artists’ work – and that was something he could rarely shake even when he was attempting to do more “serious” work: the meanings were on the surface, plain and bold. You can see it in his earnest war paintings of brave soldiers taking brave action under distress: They’re like cover paintings for Collier’s magazine or The Saturday Evening Post. That is not an insignificant thing, but neither is it the fine art he longed to produce. N.C., I think, felt trapped by his success as a secondary artist, like Eugene O’Neill’s matinee-idol star of a father, touring endlessly in the endlessly popular The Count of Monte Cristo.

Subtlety was never N.C.’s strong suit. But he brought a strange enchantment to illustrative paintings such as Gnomes Bowling from Rip Van Winkle. Of his non-illustration paintings, the shipboard Eight Bells has a good, honest American realist feel, and the small 1937 oil A Maine Sea Captain’s Daughter, posed at tea in a window overlooking a harbor, has the genuine charm of an American folk portrait from fifty or a hundred years earlier. If it’s out of its own time, it’s also very good.

Jamie Wyeth’s “Russians off the Coast of Maine,” 1988, mixed media on paper; and “Warm Halloween,” 1989, mixed media and watercolor of drybrush. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Jamie, the youngest of the three, splits the difference between his father and grandfather. He likes color, the way N.C. did, and like Andrew he has a feel for the rural and agrarian. Carrying on the family tradition, he’s happily at home in a figurative world. His vision is both more colorful and, in a way, more innocent than his father’s: He seems to find simple delight in rural scenes that Andrew invested with implicit danger and awareness of death.

Jamie loves autumn and the rituals of Halloween and has painted lots of pumpkin heads that are quite charming, not unlike his grandfather’s illustrations but with an overlay of wit. Carrying on the family tradition in another way, he’s a fine draftsman, as shown in paintings such as 1988’s Russians Off the Coast of Maine, and like N.C. he’s given to bold statements verging on overstatement, such as his 1999 triptych The Tempest.

Jamie Wyeth (American, born 1946), “Patriot’s Barn,” 2001, mixed media on toned board, Bank of America Collection © 2017 Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

His 2001 painting Patriot’s Barn, an image of a white barn painted with a bold American flag that’s also reflected in a pond below, was made after the 9/11 attacks as an evocation of pride and recovery. It has simple power, but meanings shift: When I saw it, it reminded me of a couple of similar barns I saw while driving through rural New England last October, before the presidential election, which were affixed not just with the bold flag image but also, in huge letters, with the word TRUMP. The work of Jamie’s in this show that I like best is his 1977 study for a full-length portrait of the dancer Rudolf Nureyev: compact, balanced, geometrical, and bursting with quiet star power. The eyes have it.

A pair of paintings by Henriette Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth’s oldest child, flank a New Mexican landscape by her husband, Peter Hurd. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

The exhibition’s middle section, devoted to Andrew, is more sparse, and not just because Andrew’s vision is more spare and peeled back than his father’s or son’s. There’s also just less of it. It’s augmented in one corner with a few works by N.C.’s oldest child, Henriette Wyeth, whose work is both generous and detailed, and by her husband, N.C.’s onetime student Peter Hurd. Henriette and Peter lived and worked for decades in New Mexico, where Hurd in particular became well-known as a leading Southwest regionalist. It might have been a good idea to add a couple more of his paintings to this exhibit.

A wall of Andrew Wyeth paintings: bleached, spare, detailed. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

None of Andrew’s Helga paintings, whose promotional notoriety overshadowed their genuine artistic worth, are here (they’re hard to come by since being sold en masse to a collector in Japan years ago); and little of his chilly scenes of winter or his piercing portraits of rural drifters and loners and stalwarts like the Kuerners, shaped and shifted by their relationships to the land. But what’s on hand by Andrew is still worth seeing, both for the way they show his development as an artist, finding his own voice separate from his father’s, and for his technique. The tempera painting On the Edge and the watercolors Crossed Swords and Victoria hint at the searing loneliness that underlies his vision of life in America, and the awareness in the rural world of the inevitability of decay and death. There is a stubbornness to Andrew’s work that wants to be paid attention to in these fierce divided times, a sense of rootedness that seems to travel a territory somewhere between tradition and flexibility. It is rooted in the soil, and in the awareness that the land both gives and takes away. One is anchored by it, given the comfort and liberation of a home, and bound by it, made a prisoner of its daunting demands. One loves it and despises it, respects it and endures it. It makes perhaps a harsh life, but a life that is constantly felt, constantly being lived.

Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), “On the Edge,” 2001, tempera on panel, Bank of America Collection © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

That palette of mud and baby poop that the critic Dave Hickey mocked is in fact a scraping away of the inessential, a honing down to the bone, to the elemental place. That’s where the Andrew Wyeth who matters resides, in this evocation of the harsh and wounded American soul, the place that knows things it does not want to know, and perseveres. We see little of that in Three Generations – perhaps the 1984 watercolor The Forge comes closest – and that’s too bad. The glass is half empty. Yet it’s also half full. And half a glass is better than none.

Andrew Wyeth, “The Forge,” 1984, watercolor on paper; Bank of America Collection; © Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society.


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