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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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Anyone familiar only with Wyeth as his severest critics rendered him—i.e., as a Thomas Kinkade-like lineworker pumping out commercial art fit only (as one critic said) for the homes of retired Republican politicians and the boardrooms of bankrupt banks—will do well to take his time wandering this show. It quickly becomes clear how thoroughly the popular debates of decades past got Wyeth wrong. If these pictures are comforting nostalgia for a simpler past, “illustrations of the good life,” and “kindly sermons,” then I am Marie of Romania. Beneath the frequent prettiness, most of the pictures are just this side of harrowing, not just lonesome and melancholy but portraits of life as it seeps inevitably away. The wind that lifts the lace curtain in Wind from the Sea makes the hair on your arms stand up. Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son and a celebrated artist himself, confesses to being puzzled by the benign view of Wyeth’s work. “My father’s work is terrifying,” he said. It’s not sentimental. It’s luminous! But in a creepy way.

There was a lot more to him, in other words, than many of his friends and enemies picked up on—a constant hint, at least, of menace that keeps all of us at a distance from him and his work. If Time and Newsweek and Hilton Kramer had seen him plain, who knows what his reputation would have been? 

It’s not as if he didn’t warn us. He once told his biographer Meryman a story about wandering the hills around Chadds Ford. It was a soft spring morning. Stopping to rest near a group of European spring beauties, he saw on a trail above him a young woman on a walk. Assuming she was alone, she moved off the trail, lifted her skirt, and defecated in the grass. Wyeth was charmed. “The white curve of her bottom was amazing,” he told Meryman. The little lumps she left tumbled downhill and stopped in the patch of spring beauties. 

He titled the painting of the flowers May Day. It shows the beauties flashing white and green, with hints of yellow and red, rising out of what appears to be a rich, brown bed of Brandywine loam. It has been a great favorite of Wyeth fans over the years; you can buy a reproduction on eBay for $495. It’s uncharacteristically colorful, almost pretty and very springlike, and just abstract enough to be thoroughly misunderstood. 

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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