Tag Archives: aliza shvarts

Andrew Wyeth R.I.P.


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.



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Friday Odds and Ends

Another of our books has received a detailed and flattering review at Art Blog By Bob; this time it’s The Art Atlas, which we mentioned a couple posts ago and which seems to be having its well-deserved day in the sun.

The Wall Street Journal featured another thoughtful art essay last week, in which two subjects we’ve touched on recently—the epidemic of jargon in the modern art world and the diminishing returns of “shock art,” as highlighted by the Aliza Shvarts controversy—dovetail nicely, and prompt some tough questions about whether today’s art students are learning enough (or anything) about the history and techniques of their field before learning to discard them.

Finally, a month or so ago we promised a much-belated entry on the College Art Association conference in Dallas, which two Arbiters of Style attended on behalf of Abbeville. We now concede that the conference, which happened in February, is ancient history and that we’ve broken our promise like an icy winter twig. Our coverage would have boiled down to three essentials: the weather in Dallas was surprisingly cold; people liked our books so much they just about bought out the booth; and the folks at the Liquitex company are really, really nice. Incidentally, while all of the art museums in the Dallas/Forth Worth area are fort worth checking out (yowza!), we especially recommend the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum. But we feel we owe our readers a little bit more than this, so we’re planning some extra, and extra-special, coverage of BookExpo America in June. We swear by our grandmother’s principles.

Happy Friday and enjoy the weekend! (Readers of this site may have noticed that we are now doing our best to update every weekday, but we’ll always be off Saturdays and Sundays. In the life of the truly stylish, leisure time is sacred.)

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Marginalia: Brainstorm, Artblog.net

Today’s “Marginalia” is a double feature, as we highlight two blogs worthy of any stylish reader’s attention. The first, Brainstorm: Lives of the Mind, is a blog about “ideas, culture, and the arts,” produced by The Chronicle Review and authored by a crack team of eight thinkers in fields ranging from literature to science. The entries are eclectic, thought-provoking, funny, and as the title suggests, not afraid to brew up a little intellectual controversy. We’ve especially enjoyed recent posts by Laurie Fendrich on the firestorm surrounding the now-infamous Aliza Shvarts senior art project at Yale. Fendrich, wisely choosing to leave the ethical debate to other commentators (as we will also, pure aesthetes that we are), judges the project instead as art—and by this standard, finds it to be less an outrage than a yawn:

“For those of us in the contemporary-art business, the Yale squabble isn’t all that interesting. Ms. Shvarts’ undergraduate project sounds so, well, so undergraduate. Contrary to what a lot of people may think, her project wouldn’t make it into a serious contemporary gallery and, if it did, it wouldn’t get much traction with the press or the public…Almost everyone in the art world has been there and done that, a long time ago.”

Given the nature of Shvarts’s project, this last comment might raise some eyebrows, but to prove the point, Fendrich has compiled a list of similarly “shocking” conceptual/performance art pieces that are two, three, and four decades old. (Warning: readers who are easily offended may wish to skip this link and wait for tomorrow’s post on incredibly adorable cats!)

Equally enlightening, and enlightened, on the subject of art is Franklin Einspruch of Artblog.net, who holds a healthy suspicion of “art that has other agendas” [i.e. beyond the aesthetic] and whose site conducts what he describes as an ongoing conversation about art with readers worldwide. Here at Abbeville, we’re such fans of his blog that we sponsored a giveaway contest for his readers, putting free copies of our new tome The Art Atlas in the hands of three lucky winners. The contest was over almost as soon as it started, but don’t worry if you missed out: non-free, but equally enticing, copies of the book are available at our main site (click that big beautiful cover image below):

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