Christina’s World, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy Wikipedia.
As everyone will have heard by now, Andrew Wyeth has died at the ripe old age of 91. We wanted to take a moment to remember him—and of course, to weigh in on his legacy, since as his Times obituary duly noted, his work was both extremely popular and highly controversial.
Wyeth touched a nerve in the midcentury art world for a few simple reasons: he was a realist painter; he had a public; his most famous work—Christina’s World—was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, a provocative choice at the time. His detractors saw him as a reactionary, a purveyor of clichés, and (to quote E. B. White on critical slights against Thoreau) a kind of glorified Nature Boy. Others saw darker shades and deeper mysteries beneath the technically flawless surface. His son, Jamie, compared Wyeth’s paintings to Robert Frost’s poems: ”At one level, it’s all snowy woods and stone walls. At another, it’s terrifying. He exists at both levels. He is a very odd painter.”
The comparison is precise and apt. Frost, too, was dismissed by many as a regionalist hack, until skillful readers and critics realized that poems like “The Most of It” and “Directive” were complex, powerful, universal—and indeed, terrifying in a peculiarly modern way. Now that the art-world politics of fifty years ago are a relic and, as the Times summarized, “the traditional 20th century distinction between abstraction and avant-gardism on the one hand and realism and conservatism on the other came to seem woefully inadequate and false,” we can assess Wyeth’s work, too, on its own terms without polemicizing about genre. To be a realist is not necessarily to be a literalist; to use an old-fashioned idiom is not necessarily to lack new ideas. Christina’s World is also Wyeth’s world distilled: isolated, alien, disturbing, fraught with an inexplicable cruelty that must be struggled against grimly. Why, sort of like the modern world!
In terms of technique, too, Wyeth was no complacent greeting-card realist. Says the Times: “The public seemed to focus less on [Christina's World's] gothic and morose quality and more on the way Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism…” Yet the unwashed masses may have been on to something that the Times and many critics overlook. Wyeth’s obsessive fidelity to textures and surfaces often heightened reality almost to the point of abstraction. In Black Velvet, his portrait of a nude Helga Testorf reclining on the titular fabric, the minutely-observed velvet looks somehow softer and sleeker than the real thing—and far stranger than abstraction could have rendered it. The composition, too, has a beautifully abstract quality: the nude seems at first to be hovering in empty space until the viewer looks closer and marvels at how rich that space really is.
Finally, speaking of Helga Testorf: Wyeth’s having painted his neighbor for years unbeknownst to his wife—and possibly having slept with her—and making boatloads of money off the revelation either way—is the kind of bona fide scandal the art world could really use these days. We have a soft spot for that kind of juicy hoopla, as well as for real-life artist-muse relationships (cf. D. G. Rossetti and Jane Burden, or if you prefer, D. G. Rossetti and his pet wombats). Lately the closest thing we’ve had to shocking art gossip is the second-rate Aliza Shvarts affair. Andrew Wyeth, we’ll miss you.