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.
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.”)
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.”
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.