Andrew Wyeth, And His Populists Legacy
It takes a very long time to get to know Andrew Wyeth as a man and even longer to know him as an artist. He's a cover-up kind of guy in life and in art. But the key to understanding both human being and creator is to
know that he is a staunch independent.
He's been independent all his life - from the time he was taken out of school and tutored (sometimes being treated like Little Lord Fauntleroy) and from the moment his famous illustrator-father took him into the studio and started his formal artistic education. His fierce independence has continued right up to the present day.
He has almost always gone against the grain, except for the early watercolors in Maine, which he tends to dismiss as being part of his ' blue sky' period. As a realist in an epoch of art history devoted to the abstract and the visually obtuse, Wyeth has been swimming upstream all his career. It has not been easy, although it may look it. Wyeth has struggled with his art. There is nothing facile about it.
From the start Wyeth was free and undisciplined. He either resented opinion or ignored it. Early on he stopped showing anyone his works in the first stages for fear that a discouraging phrase might cause him to abandon the project. He learned how to fight and finish a picture, for himself, beyond anything. In art, as well as in life, the artist can become ornery. And he can be maddeningly secretive - so much so that, at times, he becomes the sole worshiper in his own cult.
Wyeth, in essence, has always painted for himself. He harbors private, sometimes bizarre reasons for initiating a work, reasons that occasionally surface in an interview, such as those comments that accompany the paintings
chosen for this retrospective.
It would have been impossible for anyone to have imagined that the impulse to produce the brilliant Garret Room showing the sleeping old black man Tom Clark, would have been the four-year-old Wyeth feeling both anticipation and trepidation in the middle of the night at the Christmas stocking on his bed with the skinny doll stuck in its neck. And its hard to imagine that when he began to conceive of the complete Night Sleeper - that mesmerizing image of his sleeping dog and the views of his farm through mysterious night windows - he was recalling the old overnight train that whisked him to Maine as a child. In other pictures we all can guess the symbolism: the dry leaf that reaches out like a hand or dried corn that stands out there alone, solitary and isolated like a personal friend or alter ego of the artist. Like Caspar David Friedrich, he is an original who only on occasion chooses to share with the world the underlying emotional and spiritual impulses that goaded him into creation.
For Wyeth the free, dreamlike, often romantic associations are a vital part of his creative process and lie at the heart of the independent spirit that has supported him for five decades. The romantic nature of his realism
is what has sustained him throughout his career and will guarantee that in the years to come his works will be remembered, perhaps not always with fondness, but no doubt indelibly.
That does not make Wyeth a romantic He couldn't be further from one and despite the fact that he brings his emotions to bear in creating a work of art, it's accurate to describe him as dispassionate even cruelly detached from his subject.
He moves things that he sees around in his pictures, he swoops up into the air to have a "helicopter look" or burrows down on the ground to investigate from an ants point of view something that has struck his gaze, but he never romanticizes or sweetens a subject. He relishes letters lie has received praising him for having painted the "beautiful picture of that gorgeous young girl Christina" crawling in her front yard in Christina's World, As he says, somewhat triumphantly, "Of course, she's an old cripple, for Pet'es sake!
Unlike most artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Wyeth hasn't never been confused about the direction his work should take, nor has he experienced dramatic transformations of style. That is not to say that he has not changed. Early in his career he was a proud protagonist of technique and a keen observer of and philosopher about the materials of painting. Today he argues convincingly that he doesn't "give a damn" about technique and sometimes tries to lay waste to it.
This is all the more surprising since, in the past, he has been virtually poetic about the various media he uses.
To me, pencil drawing is a very emotional, very quick, very abrupt medium... I will perhaps put in a terrific black and press down on the pencil so strongly that the lead will break, in order to emphasize my emotional impact with the object. . . . Pencil is sort of like fencing or shooting. Yet sometimes my hand, almost my fingertips, begins to shiver when I start.”
The only virtue to it is to put down an idea quickly without thought about whaat-you feel at the moment. It's one's free side. Watercolor shouldn't behave.”
I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into a subject. I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay out the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that there's only a very small amount of paint left. It's a weaving process - one applies layers of drybrush over and within the broad washes of watercolor. And I sometimes throw in pencil and Higgins' ink.”
These days the artist seldom speaks about technique. Today he stresses light, the emotional impact of his story, the feeling of the atmosphere. The once-revered, almost mystical tools of painting are now just tools.
It's a dry pigment mixed with distilled water and yoke of efg. I love the quality of the colors: the earths, the terra verde, the ochers, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds. They aren't artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build - like building in great layers the way the earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness”
Subject matter has always been of paramount importance to Wyeth, especially when it comes to him unexpectedly, or, as he likes to put it, "through the back door." He may start a scene and then see something days or weeks later that will make him completely change the first impression and, of course, the picture. He thoroughly believes, like one of his favorites, John Constable, the English painter of the eighteenth-nineteenth century, that you never have to add life to a scene. If you quietly sit and wait long enough, patiently enough, life will come - "sort of an accident in the right spot."
These "accidents" are the foundations on which the bulk of Wyeth's best visions are based and are relatively unknown - for good reason, since he has not bothered to talk about them until fairly recently. For the most part only the pictures' titles offer any clues to the vivid experiences behind an inspiration.
One "accident" occurred while he was finding it impossible to resolve one of his post impressive images, Distant Thunder. He had wanted to paint his wife picking blueberries and couldn't get it right. Finally he had hidden in the hope that he would be surprised by something. He was. There she was sleeping, and he made a quick drawing. He heard thunder in the distance, and suddenly the doge's head popped up in alarm. That action became the spark that ignited his imagination. He then realized that there was too much of his wife's face in the picture, and he painted in the nonexistent hat.
Chance, the odd happenstance, the abrupt appearance of life where before there was stillness or death is of critical importance to Wyeth the painter. Several times in his lifetime of painting the unplanned discovery of something young and fresh and different on the very day or even moment when a favorite model was dying or had just died has transformed his life. On his way to the funeral of Christina Olson in Maine, he happened to drive by the house of the Finn, George Erickson, leading him to think about Ericksons young daughter, Siri, who would become the model of some of Wyeth's best nudes in the 1970s. Wyeth remembers going by the young girls house as he was following the hearse on his way to Christina Olsons funeral and thinking of her as at once the end and the continuation of Olsons - a subject emerging from Christina yet antithetical to her, one that was invigorating, zestful, and powerful.
When his friend Karl Kuerner was dying, Wyeth was painting one of his most brooding and poetic work, a large watercolor of the Kuerner house, with one light in the window where his friend lay on his sickbed. The time of year was that between-moment of winter and spring, and that is where Wyeth first met Helga, "carrying a vacuum cleaner." And, of course, on Karl's death, Helga, his nurse, became the symbol of life out of ashes and the real - and furtive - spring that exists to a certain degree in all our yearnings.
The more mature Wyeth becomes, the more he hopes for the spark of chance that will add mystery and incongruity to a scene. Objects washed up on the shore of Maine intrigue him. The sudden burst of bright color from a Sunday newspaper advertising supplement blown into the road seize his fancy. And the paintines already started will alter radically.
When he finds a subject that he describes as "almost perfect for me," he is likely, these days, to walk away from it. It is not that he needs a contrived charge to move a jaded eye; it's more that at seventy-six years of age, he is still maturing creatively, willing to take even more risks than at any time in his career.
There was hardly a time in his creative life when he didn't take risks and revel in them. When in his formative years, urged by his father to paint colorful pictures, he rebelled after finding a dead crow in a field one day. He felt impelled to set down on the ground and to observe the bird and nature from inches away, preserving her dour, harsh colors. As he says,
This intense, close-up examination of nature was the inspiration for the gripping self-portrait titled Trodden Weed,in which Wyeth sees himself, nature, and the presence of death from a height of six inches off the ground. With any naturalist other than Wyeth this view of old boots and the dried-out beige grasses of winter would be contrived, even false. But with Wyeth the scene is a faithful depiction of nature plus an accurate evocation of a dream.
This crow in one of Karl's fields symbolized the nature and intimacy of the Pennsylvania landscape. The blue-black of the feathers helped me break free of 'impressionism.' Without seeing this crow I would never have done Christina's World which has an emphasis on passes and the landscape very close-up - what lurks close down at the surface.”
Yet for Wyeth the dream, the all-but-hidden personal association, is not always necessary for a picture to succeed brilliantly For observation, an almost obsessed and driven observation of a subject, can be the force behind a work, as long as that observation does not fully take command. Nowhere is this more evident than in the penetrating study of the side of the Olson house, Weatherside. For this painting, Wyeth found himself actually counting every piece of clapboard, every nail, all the peeling strips of paint, the panes of glass, the shards of the broken panes, rags, clothes, and detritus that lent character to the deteriorating, old structure. Carried away to the point where his fascination with the details began to impinge upon art, the artist was able to take hold of himself, calm down, and create something deeper and more universal than a mere inventory of intriguing forms. He wanted to paint "a true portrait of the house - not a picturesque portrait, but one I'd be satisfied to carry around in my wallet. He succeeded.
It's hard sometimes to keep track of Wyeth s impulses in individual works - and, of course, he revels in creating a certain confusion on the part of the observer. He can be surgically observant in a picture like Weatherside, then go "out of his mind" with the emotion of a scene, as he did in the extraordinary watercolor Wolf Moon. The latter is a fanciful view of the Kuerner farmhouse, seen as if the artist had been elevated into the air, and, at the same time, a depiction of sounds and the feeling of a human being - Anna Kuerner walking from room to room in the cold house in the middle of the night turning on and of lights as she makes her way to her upstairs bedroom. Nothing about this still image is without movement, sound, or emotion. In time it will probably be mistaken as surreal.
The real danger with Andrew Wyeth is that in the future he may be interpreted incorrectly as an artist who imagined all his subjects. It might be difficult in a generation or two to believe that Wyeths wife, Betsy, really existed as she did in Maga's Daughter, wearing an old Quaker hat and looking so hot under the collar. Or that the striking portrait of the Kuerners in which Karl seems to be deliberately pointing a rifle at his weird-looking spouse was an actual moment of fact and that the non-factual element of the picture - a rack of elk - was sandpapered out of the large watercolor to accommodate the reality of the event.
Of all the watershed paintings in Wyeth's life, perhaps Barracoon, painted in 1976, is the most significant. For not only is this the nude that implies - or is-Helga, but it is a painting from which the artist eliminated all references to the specific place in which it was created in order to achieve a timelessness and spacelessness. After this one senses in Wyeth's works a gradual lessening of the bonds of having to be so specific, having, as a duty, to observe every board, piece of glass, or rusted metal hook. The stunning painting is in a real sense the halfway point in Wyeth's creative life - about thirty years from Christina's World and twenty years from the strong works of the 1990s. It's quite possible that this nude will turn out to be the single most successful and moving painting of his entire oeuvre.
From the late seventies and early eighth on. there has been another subtle change in Wyeth's viewpoint about his worlds and their occupants and properties. He discovered the light and atmosphere of the out-of-doors - what the French would describe as "plein air." Of course, Wyeth had painted out-of-doors from his earliest landscapes and figural scenes and was fascinated by the shifting moods of light, so it's not as if he suddenly discovered a new world outside the studio. But until paintings like Night Sleeper, Ravens Grove and Pentecost, he used the light as "moods of light" rather than as totally accurate and perceived light. And that is not quite the same as plein air, which is a combination of perception and exuberance. In the early eighties it may be that Wyeth finally came to grips and made a proper compromise with the "impressionism" of his youthful years (if not with the garish colors of his "blue sky" period of the forties) and acquired an interest in light as color and tangible substance. In works such as Flood Plain and the recent Whale Rib, a startlingly powerful image of a small island in Maine, the light is at the same time illumination, color, atmosphere, structure, and emotion.
Whale Rib, painted in the late summer of 1993, is a uncannily observed picture and a profoundly emotional and dramatic one - possessing a host of delicious, "false" surrealistic touches. It echoes his first desire to get down on the ground, for he painted this watercolor literally lying on his side in a fierce storm. The painting, done on Bennes Island, is a portrait of Maine as a state of physical reality and a state of mind - a place in which things are constantly in danger of being blown off the face of the earth. And the painting is also almost a scientific tract, an official inventory of the flora and fauna that can exist only on this specific and tiny island, an environment that is in reality, utterly different from Allen Island a stone's throw away. In the same stroke, Whale Rib is broad and universal, specific in almost a picky way and emotionally powerful, no less than a nature walk and the reminder of the inevitable end of all things human, natural, even cosmic.
Only a true artistic independent like Andrew Wyeth could have created something of such pure simplicity and maddening complexity, something so obvious yet so satisfyingly clandestine.