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Terror in the Abstract

How Andrew Wyeth saw the world, and himself.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Was Andrew Wyeth so celebrated because he was so misunderstood, or did it work the other way around? His reputation seems ill-fitting, whether you consider him one of the great American painters of the last century, as many laymen and a few professionals do, or a kitsch monger and conman, as many more professionals and a few sniffy, wised-up laymen do. The question comes up whenever museum curators swivel their sights toward his vast body of work—thousands upon thousands of paintings and sketches, spanning a 72-year public career—and put on another exhibit to try to sort him out, as the gifted Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock have done at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  

‘Evening at Kuerners’ (1970)

‘Evening at Kuerners’ (1970)

Andrew Wyeth / Private Collection

The show takes as its premise Wyeth’s career-long insistence that the most famous figurative painter of his time—that would be Wyeth himself—was in truth an abstract artist: “A lot of people say I’ve brought realism back,” he said in the mid-1960s, as he approached the peak of his fame. “I honestly consider myself an abstractionist.” The bone beneath the flesh, the frame subtending the barn and springhouse—these were what he wanted his audience to see and grapple with, not the surface of things, even when the surfaces were rendered as painstakingly as Wyeth’s. (The best of them are as finely grained as a Dürer print.) He used his realism, he said, as a kind of come-on—a way to get the folks into the tent: “They’re attracted by the realism, then begin to feel the abstraction.”

Wyeth gave countless interviews and said countless things, many of them contradictory, and he tended his public presentation with the care of a skilled marketer. But if he truly considered himself a cunning Jackson Pollock in disguise, his reputation must be one of the most successful cases of mistaken identity since the Scarlet Pimpernel. Fans and critics admired or condemned him for the same reasons: He was a painter of accessible paintings filled with identifiable objects and people, often set in wintry rural settings, rendered more or less faithfully in muted colors or shades of dun and ochre. He was loved or hated or ignored because he was a painter whose paintings were easy to grasp. 

Thanks to Anderson and Brock, though, with “Looking Out, Looking In” we can begin to see how deceptive the accessibility is. Wyeth died in 2009, at the age of 91, and even now it’s hard to convey to a younger generation how famous he was: He was the personification of American art in the popular mind. His painting Christina’s World, bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1949, rivals American Gothic as the least avoidable and most lampooned American artwork of the last century. He made the cover of Time twice and of Newsweek twice, once during the same week. (Trust us, youngsters; this was a big deal.) Television networks filmed specials about him and broadcast them to large and welcoming audiences.

By the mid-1990s, a new Wyeth painting would sell for $1 million at a minimum, topping out at $3 million. Snoopy, a character even less avoidable than Wyeth, boasted of the Wyeth painting he hung in his doghouse. Politicians pawed at him (Wyeth, not Snoopy). President Nixon put on a one-man Wyeth exhibit at the White House. President Eisenhower asked Wyeth to paint his portrait. He won the Medal of Freedom from President Kennedy, the Congressional Gold Medal from President Reagan, and the National Medal of Arts from the second President Bush. His home in the Brandywine Valley crossroads of Chadds Ford, where he was born, died, and lived all his life, became, and still is, a tourist destination. 

His immense popularity with the general public is best understood as an expression of relief—a freeing of frustrated aesthetic instinct. For decades after World War II ordinary people who liked visual art had been searching for visual art they could like. The pickings were slim. Would-be art lovers were offered high-concept works that were not, to the layman, at all easy to like. We’ll call this “modernism” for simplicity’s sake. Pollock, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, and the other modernists traveled with a phalanx of hyperarticulate critics whose job it was to convince the public that realistic depictions of scenes and objects in a work of art were simply boorish, unsophisticated—sentimental, even. “Sentimental” is a word often used by sophisticated critics in all the arts: It is a technical term that literally means “bad.” (“Luminous,” if you were wondering, means “good.”)

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