Editor's note: The following essay, written in 1976, is printed with permission of the author, Don Gray. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Andrew Wyeth

by Don Gray

 

The discussions, disputes and controversy that have accompanied Andrew Wyeth's career are well known. To this reviewer, Wyeth is an important figure in art not so much for what he does with the aesthetics of art, as for the attitude, the conception of the artist, he brings to painting.  

Wyeth has remained visually and emotionally attached to the real world, a world all but forgotten by his contemporaries and the 20th Century. The importance of this cannot be over-estimated. In this way, Wyeth has served as a link with the great tradition of artists responsive to life and humanity that was essentially severed following the Post-Impressionists, and which is now in the early stages of resumption.  

Wyeth reacts to and expresses the character of the people whose lives he has passed through and shared. He searches out the pose, the look in the eye, the set of the mouth, the significant facial wrinkle, the sweater out at the elbow, the signals a dress gives when it has been worn a thousand times, retaining the form and postures of the wearer.   

He sees significance in the simplest objects, implements, animals and landscapes of a rural life. A basket, a stump, a hound, an egg-scale, a hillside painted by Wyeth contain a meaning, rising to the level of symbol, which is a blend of the meaning -- poetic and divine -- inherent in all things in life, and the depth of Wyeth's emotional response and visual commitment to them.  

For these reasons, I have always been a Wyeth admirer. I never thought of him as simply another illustrator, like Norman Rockwell, for example. I contrasted the seriousness of his intentions with Rockwell's basically anecdotal style. Wyeth's sensitivity, perception and symbolic intensity elevated him, in my mind, above the run-of-the-mill illustrator-artist.  

Though previously recognizing weaknesses in his work, I was still surprised at my reaction to the Wyeth exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through February 6). Entitled the "Two worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons," it contains sketches, drawings, watercolors and temperas of the people, buildings, objects and landscape of the Olson and Kuerner farms in Maine and Pennsylvania respectively.  

There are some problems with this exhibit. The lack of true form in much of the work is very disturbing. For example, the well-known portrait of Karl Kuerner, 1948, with the hooks in the ceiling, is not solid, for all of its expressive impact and intense observation. Kuerner is like a stuffed man, rather than a living being. A more recent example is "Pine Baron," a 1976 tempera of a German helmet filled with pine cones in front of a receding row of pine trees. Both works are brilliant in technique, as nearly all Wyeth works are, but they point out the difference between an illustrator (no matter how good) and the artist of the highest level. Namely, these pictures are generally the illustration of surface detail rather than the fine art creation of bedrock, actual form.  

An exception to this assessment, and the best tempera in the exhibition in terms of significance of form, color, drawing and character of the sitter, is "Miss Olson," 1952 (compare it to the very weak, illustrational portrait of an indian, "Nogeeshik"). Christina Olson holds a kitten on her chest, apparently either dozing or contemplating it with heavy weariness. The form of the head, body and dress is thoroughly convincing, and somehow the dryness of the medium, which also tends to destroy form in other pictures, is overcome here.  

Another version of Christina Olson, "Anna Christina," 1967, depicting her sitting against a foggy background, is a marvelous character study emphasizing a prominent, hooked nose, eyes that pull against each other as one looks toward the viewer, a jutting lower lip and weathered cheek. But it just doesn't hold up as a solid head. It is again the extraordinarily talented illustration of a head, rather than the three-dimensional re-creation of a head in the sense of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cezanne, etc. 

The color in the works at the Metropolitan, particularly in the watercolors, is also problematic. While incredibly sensitive to textures, Wyeth seems nearly color-blind, working almost exclusively in changes of value...raw umber lightened with yellow ochre or white, darkened with black. A series of nearly a dozen views of the Kuerner farm in the snow are extremely repetitive in the use of raw umber and yellow ochre to depict buildings and leafless trees, and the nearly untouched white of the paper, the snow.  

Even if the Impressionists had never existed, an artist of Wyeth's perceptiveness would discover at least one or two of the blue, violet, pink, orange, green or yellow-white nuances in the color of snow. Perhaps this suggests that Wyeth is not so much the realist many believe him to be, working as he does within his personal conception of the world.  

To be fair about Wyeth's color, one must mention that temperas like "Anna Kuerner," "Weather Side," "Winter 1946," "Miss Olson" and "End of the Olsons" have a subdued, carefully managed, though by no means intense, richness of color that avoids the pervasive brown tonality.  

Finally, for this viewer, the question of whether the watercolor or dry-brush is executed on rough or smooth paper is of importance. The smoother paper produces more homogeneous, fluidly unified, atmospheric works. The rough paper gives a scratchy, unsatisfying appearance to the watercolors. Compare "First Snow," "Peter Hurd, Jr." and "Christina's Teapot" (smooth paper) with "Hickory Smoked" and "Below the Kitchen" (rough). An exception to this rough/smooth idea is a fresh watercolor study of two open windows, one seen through the other, executed on rough paper, called "Airing Out."  

In short, an exhibition I had expected to thoroughly enjoy, I found troubling and somewhat depressing. The freely-brushed wash-drawings and slashing pencil studies for "Brown Swiss," 1957 (the Kuerner barn, pond and winter fields), seemed curiously without passion. A more meticulous study (#40) for the same painting smacked more of architectural rendering than drawing. In the finished painting (technically and compositionally dazzling), the limited color and exasperatingly precise drawing seemed more narrowly restrictive than accurate. The melancholy richness of content I had once seen in Wyeth's work -- which genuinely exists as one of the artist's strong points -- seemed diminished by his aforementioned illustration of form -- the accumulation of surface detail -- rather than the creation of organic form that exists convincingly in three-dimensional pictorial space.   

Viewing the exhibition catalogue (which reproduces all works in the exhibit and has an illuminating interview with Wyeth by Met Director Thomas Hoving), I have come to the conclusion that Wyeth's work tends to look better in reproduction than it does in the original because of his insistence on value over color.  

But in spite of whatever aesthetic weaknesses Wyeth may have (particularly when assessing him within the context of the watered-down aesthetic and expressive condition of most art today), it seems to me that we must value a man who has the feeling for people (and nature) that Wyeth has. Wyeth doesn't just have people to his studio, make art from them, then get rid of them. He knows them, helps them, paints them in their homes, lives with them, leaves his paintings in rooms in their homes, turning them into studios. This genuine feeling for his subjects is what the relationship of the artist to the world should be. 

Copyright by Don Gray

 

About the author

Don Gray is a painter who writes.  In addition to being an artist, critic and poet, he was a university professor of studio art and art history, as well as producer/moderator of cable television programs on art.  He received a B.A. degree in Art from Arizona State University and an M.A. degree in Art from the University of Iowa.  Now living in Arizona, he resided in New York for twenty-five years.  He has long been a supporter of significant realist art.


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