Weekly Update – Wyeth’s coolness
Roberta says Andrew Wyeth's 100 paintings in his massive 2006 retrospective at the PMA are worth the visit, even though she has mixed feelings about the artist's Ralph-Lauren-esque presentation of the world as cool, fashionable and color-coordinated.

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Andrew Wyeth painting
Andrew Wyeth, Trodden Weed, 1951, Tempera on panel, 20 x 18.25 inches, Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth ©Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth‘s 70-year retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art raises the issue of the great divide between what the public likes and what art insiders like-rarely the same thing.

Paintings like Christina’s World (not in the show, by the way, because it’s deemed too fragile to travel) are universally admired by the general public. These same paintings are scorned by many art insiders who feel Wyeth’s vision of an idealized rural America is faux, a kind of Ralph Lauren boutique art that implies good taste and money.

Andrew Wyeth Photo by Victoria Wyeth, 1996 © 1996 Victoria Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, Photo by Victoria Wyeth, 1996 © 1996 Victoria Wyeth

Wyeth, 89, is a public artist in spite of himself. Home-schooled and apprenticed to his famous artist father N.C. Wyeth, the artist is a solitary duck who grew up in a compound, sheltered from the outer world and close to the land. The land, the compound and its people are the only things he paints. Yet this intense private vision has been stripped down to some universal core that transcends the personal. The spare affect resulted from advice Wyeth took from his wife Betsy, who also encouraged him to lose the flashy brushstrokes and bright colors. Mrs. Wyeth has managed the artist’s career since the early days. She obviously has good instincts.

Winter, 1946 Tempera on panel 31.375 x 48 inches North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh © Andrew Wyeth
Winter, 1946, Tempera on panel, 31.375 x 48 inches North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh © Andrew Wyeth

Here’s what I like: The artist is a virtuoso with his chosen media, egg tempera. He makes it look easy. In spite of the nostalgia (and there’s plenty), the images are humanist in nature. Wyeth’s world is full of solitary humans and animals. You can see the artist struggling with his own loneliness and humanity. Wyeth’s portraits are sensitive and beautiful. And the quality of light and stillness is very fine. His portrayal of the land is amazing. The earth is a character. In picture after picture the land heaves up behind the humans and all but swallows them.

Alvaro and Christina, 1968 Watercolor on paper 22.5 x 28.75 inches Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine Museum purchase, 1969 © Andrew Wyeth Photograph by Melville D. McLean
Alvaro and Christina, 1968 Watercolor on paper 22.5 x 28.75 inches Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine Museum purchase, 1969 © Andrew Wyeth Photograph by Melville D. McLean

Here are the minuses: The paintings, especially the interiors, have a puritanical and chilly streak. Works that seem to praise barrenness, hard work and lack of comfort are judgmental. The overall affect of a romantic longing for a simpler time is unhealthy. And Wyeth’s fascination with death-Winter (1946), Night Sleeper (1979) Adrift (1982) and many others-is poetic clap trap. Finally, the denuding of bright color in favor of a stripped-down ocher-heavy palette is simply an artistic device that creates a signature, a style, a brand. It’s about selling, and it’s joyless.

Groundhog Day 1959 Andrew Wyeth (American, born 1917) Tempera on Masonite 31 3/8 x 32 1/8 inches Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Henry F. du Pont and Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1959 © Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, Groundhog Day 1959 Andrew Wyeth (American, born 1917) Tempera on Masonite 31 3/8 x 32 1/8 inches Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Henry F. du Pont and Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1959 © Andrew Wyeth

The public is hungry for an art vision, and while I object to the nostalgia trip Wyeth embodies, I love that people connect with any art and any artist at a time when most art has climbed into a bunker and left the public behind.

This show, with more than 100 works on view, gives Wyeth’s vision the serious look it deserves. Art insiders–you know who you are–check it out.

“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic”
Through July 16, 2006. $20. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th St. and the Pkwy. 215.235.7469.

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andrew wyeth, philadelphia museum of art

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