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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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 Of course, the very qualities that repelled critics were the qualities that soothed and charmed Wyeth’s untutored admirers. And their affection went beyond the paintings. As modernism quickly became the house style of Western art, Wyeth’s most ardent fans sensed that it was a package deal. Modernism asked something more from them than simply to accept abstract forms as higher-order artistic expressions. As one art-world maven explained to Richard Meryman, Wyeth’s biographer: 

 

Wyeth and that [realistic] style in some way have represented all the stuff out there that artists had been fighting against. The identification of the middle-class values as the enemy of the true imagination .  .  . has been around since the beginning of modernism: the belief that there was something fundamentally inauthentic about a certain way of living and a certain kind of values, something repressive and self-deceived. 

Wyeth became a symbol of this “narrowness,” not merely as a painter but as an embodiment of what was wrong with the American middle class, its complacency and piddling aspirations. He was often called a nostalgist, a pretend artist looking backward even as the vanguard struggled heroically forward. Critics foreswore the task of probing his art—there wasn’t much there to work with, after all—in favor of probing the psychology of the people who enjoyed it.

“[Wyeth’s paintings] are just sort of colored drawings,” said the modernist critic Hilton Kramer in the New York Times. “[They are] illustrated dreams that enable people who don’t like art to fantasize about not living in the 20th century.” The curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago compared Wyeth’s stuff to “kindly sermons at the village church. This artist’s contrived compositions shine with moral rectitude. He offers us first-rate illustrations of ‘the good life,’ but these illustrations never rise above illustrations.” “Illustration” is another synonym for “bad”—at least among modernist critics. You’d be hardpressed to find a great painting done before the 20th century that doesn’t illustrate some story or other.

Wyeth didn’t help his case when he happily admitted to voting for Nixon and Reagan. At times, his transgressions seemed to be more against etiquette than art. The anathema grew so intense that, when a prominent curator of 20th-century art volunteered to supervise a retrospective in New York in 1976, he did so, he said, “my reputation to the contrary notwithstanding.” Several weeks later, the curator suddenly quit, without public explanation but apparently under the pressure of peers: “The man was terrified of his reputation,” wrote one coworker. When Wyeth heard the news, he understood perfectly. “The poor son of a bitch,” he said.

 Nearly 40 years later, the curators of “Looking Out, Looking In” show no sign of professional squeamishness. Times have changed, as you’ve probably noticed. For anyone under the age of 30 the high-stakes standoff between figurative art and abstract art must seem as remote as the Wars of the Roses. Postmodernism got beyond the standoff by absorbing both points of view and making art of whatever kind unserious and beside the point. Nowadays, the figurative artist John Currin can turn his great technical skill to producing satiric pornography and his work will sit comfortably alongside an absurdist who produces blank canvases. One is as good, or bad, as the other; neither matters much.

 

In reviving Wyeth, Anderson and Brock seem to want to take him at his word, treating him as a figurative artist with a bent toward abstraction, or an abstractionist forever consigned to depict real scenes from the real world. The show is small but includes some of Wyeth’s most famous paintings: Groundhog Day (1959), Evening at Kuerners (1970), its centerpiece, Wind from the Sea (1947), as well as the early sketches from which the paintings grew. The curators’ principle of selection has been to exclude any finished painting that contains “narrative”—yet another term from the critics’ notebook, and a close relative of illustration. Here, “narrative” means human subject matter. There are no people here, scarcely even a moo-cow. Only in the preliminary sketches do people appear, and then, presumably in an effort to reduce the image to its abstract essence, we see Wyeth scrub them out so that all that remains are window sills, curtains, farm tools, distant hills of mown hay, and the spectral light pouring in from who knows what source. Wyeth, in one of his frequent torments of doubt, would sympathize with the mission the curators have set for themselves. “My problem is my subject matter,” he once said. “There’s too damn much of it.”

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