Wyeth’s World

In the wake of his death, controversy still surrounds painter Andrew Wyeth’s stature as a major American artist

Artist Andrew Wyeth at the age of 66 (© Richard Schulman / Corbis)
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Then, in 1986, Wyeth revealed the existence of 246 sketches, studies, drawings and paintings (many of them sensuous nudes) of his married neighbor, Helga Testorf, who was 22 years his junior. He also let it be known that he had been working on the paintings for 15 years, apparently unbeknown even to his wife. (For her part, Betsy didn’t seem entirely surprised. “He doesn’t pry in my life and I don’t pry in his,” she said at the time.) The revelation—many found it hard to believe that the artist could have produced so many portraits without his wife’s knowledge—thrust the works onto the covers of both Time and Newsweek. The story’s hold on the popular imagination, wrote Richard Corliss in Time, “proved that Wyeth is still the one artist whose style and personality can tantalize America.” An exhibition of the works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. followed ten months later. But the revelation was also seen as a hoax and publicity stunt. In his 1997 book American Visions, for example, Time art critic Robert Hughes denounced the way the Helga pictures came to light as a “masterpiece of art-world hype.”

This past April, NBC News’ Jamie Gangel asked Wyeth why he had kept the paintings secret. “Because I’d been painting houses, barns, and, all of a sudden, I saw this girl, and I said, ‘My God, if I can get her to pose, she personifies everything I feel, and that’s it. I’m not going to tell anyone about this, I’m going to just paint it.’ People said, ‘Well, you’re having sex.’ Like hell I was. I was painting. And it took all my energy to paint.” Wyeth went on to say that he still paints Helga once in a while. “She’s in my studio in and out. Sort of an apparition.”

In any case, many in the New York art world seized upon the Helga paintings as confirmation of their belief that Wyeth was more cultural phenomenon than serious artist. Even today, when realism has come back in vogue, hostility to Wyeth’s work remains unusually personal. Former MoMA curator Robert Storr said in the October 2005 issue of ARTnews that Wyeth’s art is “a very contrived version of what is true about simple Americans....I was born in Maine. I know these people and I know. Nothing about Wyeth is honest. He always goes back to that manicured desolation....He’s so averse to color, to allowing real air—the breath of nature—into his pictures.” In the same article, art critic Dave Hickey called Wyeth’s work “dead as a board.” Defenders are hard put to explain the virulence of the anti-Wyeth attacks. “The criticism doesn’t engage with the work at all,” says curator Knutson. “It is not persuasive.”

The current exhibition, she says, has tried to probe into Wyeth’s creative process by looking at the way he has handled recurrent themes over time. She notes that he tends to paint three subjects: still-life vignettes, vessels (such as empty buckets and baskets), and thresholds (views through windows and mysterious half-opened doors). All three, she says, serve Wyeth as metaphors for the fragility of life. In Wyeth’s paintings, she adds, “you always have the sense that there is something deeper going on. The paintings resonate with his highly personal symbolism.”

The artist’s brother-in-law, painter Peter Hurd, Knutson writes, once observed that NC Wyeth taught his students “to equate [themselves] with the object, become the very object itself.” Andrew Wyeth, she explains, “sometimes identifies with or even embodies the objects or figures he portrays.” His subjects “give shape to his own desires, fantasies, longings, tragedies and triumphs.” In a similar way, objects in Wyeth’s work often stand in for their owners. A gun or a rack of caribou antlers evokes Karl Kuerner; an abandoned boat is meant to represent Wyeth’s Maine neighbor, fisherman Henry Teel. Studies for Wyeth’s 1976 portrait of his friend Walt Anderson, titled The Duel, include renderings of the man himself. But the final painting contains only a boulder and two oars from Walt’s boat. “I think it’s what you take out of a picture that counts,” the artist says. “There’s a residue. An invisible shadow.”

Wyeth also says that “intensity—painting emotion into objects,” is what he cares about most. His 1959 painting Groundhog Day, for instance, appears to portray a cozy country kitchen. Only gradually does the viewer become aware that there’s something off, something uncomfortable, strangely surreal, about the painting. The only cutlery on the table is a knife. Outside the window, a barbed-wire fence and jagged log wrapped in a chain dominate the landscape. As Kathleen Foster notes in her catalog essay, the painting adds up to a portrait of Wyeth’s neighbor, the volatile, gun-loving Karl Kuerner, and his troubled wife, Anna. Far from cozy, the painting suggests the violence and even madness that often simmers beneath the surface of daily life.

While seemingly “real,” many of Wyeth’s people, places and objects are actually complex composites. In Christina’s World, for example, only Olson’s hands and arms are represented. The body is Betsy’s, the hair belongs to one of the artist’s aunts, and Christina’s shoe is one he found in an abandoned house. And while Wyeth is sometimes praised—and criticized—for painting every blade of grass, the grass of Christina’s World disappears, upon examination, in a welter of expressive, abstract brushstrokes. “That field is closer to Jackson Pollock than most people would like to admit,” says Princeton professor John Wilmerding, who wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog.

Wyeth “puts things in a mental blender and comes out with something unique,” says Chris Crosman, who worked closely with the Wyeths when he was director of the Farnsworth Museum in Maine. “A lot of it is based on what he sees around him, but when he gets down to painting he combines different places and perspectives. His paintings are as individual and personal as any artworks that have ever been created.”

Artist Mark Rothko, renowned for his luminous abstract canvases, once said that Wyeth’s work is “about the pursuit of strangeness.” As Wyeth has aged, his art has grown only stranger, as well as more surreal and personal. Breakup (1994) depicts the artist’s hands springing from a block of ice; Omen (1997) pictures a naked woman running across a barren landscape while a comet streaks across the sky. And one of Wyeth’s most blackly humorous paintings, Snow Hill (1989), depicts several of his favorite models, including Karl and Anna Kuerner and Helga Testorf, dancing around a maypole, celebrating the artist’s death.

“It’s a shock for me to go through and see all those years of painting my life,” Wyeth says of the current show. “When I made these paintings, I was lost in trying to capture these moments and emotions that were taking place. It’s a very difficult thing for an artist to look back at his work. If it’s personal, it touches all these emotions.”

About Henry Adams
Henry Adams

Henry Adams is a contributor to Smithsonian magazine and a Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University.

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