Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth - dead at 91

Andrew Wyeth, who died this week at the ago of 91 had long presented a troublesome problem for the critics. Widely popular and enormously successful but critically disparaged, his art doesn't seem to fit within the 20th century art canon or art historans time line of the progression from post-impressionism to abstract expressionism. Critics have derided his work for sentimentality while the public loved it for its realism, easy to understand when surrounded by all the confusing artistic "isms" of the last century.

He was born in Pennsylvania in 1917, the son of the painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth whose illustrations graced the covers of most of our childhood books - Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robin Hood. The elder Wyeth was demanding character who early decided that Andrew was the most talented of his children and trained him as an artist. Richard Lacayo of Time postulated that Wyeth's spare, technically demanding work was a reaction against the his father's bravura paintings of pirates and outlaws. His father also marked Wyeth's life strongly in one other way. In 1945 the elder Wyeth, along with his 4-year-old grandson by Andrew's brother Nat, was killed when his car stalled on a railroad track. It was an event that Wyeth's biographer, Richard Meryman, says split Wyeth's life in two, so that he spent the rest of it "processing the first 28 years — a long, unraveling of love and guilt and rage." (Lacayo, Obit from the Times)
His works inhabits the imaginary landscape of a pastoral America (one which Wyeth most assuredly did not inhabit with his wealth and popularity). It's an inward, somber world, saturated with melancholy and presented with virtuoso skill in two of the most demanding mediums an artist can work in - watercolor and egg tempera.

In the late 1930s his brother-in-law, Peter Hurd, taught him to paint in egg tempera, a medium which predates oil paint. It's a demanding medium; the pigments, mixed with egg yolk thinned with water, dry quickly, so reworking is difficult.

An artist who uses this technique uses small brushes to make tiny strokes, which results in a smooth, seamless picture surface. This suited him perfectly; as he once explained, "My aim is to escape from the medium with which I work, to leave no residue of technical mannerism to stand between my expression and the observer." (Obit from the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Yet, for all his images of a bleak Maine countryside and icons of rural farmers, he was no country rube. He could have given Koons and Hirst lessons on manipulating publicity. The whole fracus over his nudes of Helga Testoff turned out to be a clever and successful financial marketing campaign. For those who value abstract art or all the less-traditional arts of our tumultuous time or look for the newest hot thing, the popular artist under 30, it's easy to underestimate Wyeth and dismiss him.. Yet, one shouldn't. Within his self-chosen narrow range, his best work leads you into an introspective, melancholy and quietly emotional world. In an art world full of bravura wann-be superstars, that was no small thing.


Zoomie said...

I've often thought that artists who are popular with the general public are often hated by the "art world"- it often seems to come from jealousy at their success. I'm almost always glad to see an artist catch on as really so few ever do! The exception would be T.Kincade, whose work is dreadful even though popular.

namastenancy said...

Jealously is part of it but if that were completely the case, the whole current crop of uber-successful, mostly NY based artists would have come in for some of the same type of carping criticism. In the art world, there is the true dogma of abstract art, promoted by critics like Clement Greenberg. According to that, realist painters like Wyeth are heretics, or at best, "mere" illustrators. But as we know, Wyeth is better than that. But, while I disagree with Greenberg, I see his point; however, Wyeth brings true emotion to his paintings and the looser the piece, the more emotion it conveys. It's his honesty and controlled emotion that make him a good painter and at times, even a great painter. Although he was a master at manipulating the art market, he wasn't artistically dishonest like Kindaide.