Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Love in the Afternoon. Image found here.

I wanted to briefly acknowledge Wyeth's death, which happened yesterday. Just off the top of my head, it seems unlikely that there was a more widely known contemporary American painter than him (I'm deliberately excluding Thomas Kinkade), and to my mind his work is deserving of that broad recognition. Other painters hold my attention for longer, but Wyeth is no slouch.

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this excerpt from an article on Wyeth from 1987, written by Robert Hughes:

The time is past when one could dismiss Wyeth as nothing more that a sentimental illustrator, as critics irked by his popular appeal regularly did a decade or more ago. True, his work is grounded in illustration and often fails to transcend it. Not a few of the images of Helga lying naked on a bed or tramping resolutely through the snow in her Loden coat have the banal neatness of things done for a women's magazine. Some of them, like the technically impressive watercolor In the Orchard, 1974, are as deadly in their "sensitiveness" as greeting cards. But there are some fine drawings here, moments of vision caught with attentiveness and precision, that have a lot more visual oomph than the more laboriously finished works. And two or three of the paintings are marvels of iconic condensation. Like a good second-rate novelist who can rise to first-rate episodes, Wyeth can surprise you.
Like I'm going to argue with one of our best art critics. I'll just say this, though: you look at a painting like this one, Master Bedroom (image found here), and you can see Hughes' point about Wyeth's dancing on that fine line between sympathy and sentimentality. But look at Love in the Afternoon, its left side dominated by the window, and you realize that there is a suggestion of an interrupted tryst, a lover's escape over the field. Or, have a look at paintings such as Tenant Farmer and Karl's Room, or one that I have in mind that I can't find online that shows a farmer inside his gloomily-lit barn and about the only thing visible is an enormous haying hook hanging out of the gloom hanging in the background over the farmer's shoulder or, just in general, Wyeth's bleak wintry light in painting after painting, and it seems a mistake to characterize him in quite the way Hughes does. Even Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World, has a darkness, or at least a melancholy, beneath its sunny surface: It's not overt, but the girl's emaciated right arm reveals that Christina is crippled and, far from gazing dreamily at the house in the distance, may in fact be wondering just how she is going to get back there.

In thinking about all this, it occurred to me that Wyeth is to American painting as Robert Frost is to American literature: a well-known and much-loved figure who produced accessible art depicting the lives of rural folks, the better-known examples of which usually make their audiences feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside but just below whose surfaces lurk some uncomfortable truths about these people's lives.

Art doesn't have to be difficult to be good, or valuable to have. Wyeth's art, it seems to me, is partial confirmation of that.

UPDATE: You'll want to have a look at Amy's remembrance as well. Have a close look at the painting she's posted, keeping Christina's World in mind as you do.

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