In Memoriam

Of Time and Andrew Wyeth

Wyeth's traditional art had a great deal to say.

By 1.19.09

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I will admit it -- I have three Andrew Wyeth prints in my home. Whether this is proof of my philistinism, my penury, or what, I leave others to judge.

At the time of his death at 91 last week, Wyeth was arguably the finest and most well-known contemporary realist painter, popular with bourgeois suburbanites, but often dismissed by art snobs as a "mere illustrator." (It didn't help that his father, N.C. Wyeth, had in fact been a children's book illustrator.) Unlike Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives, however, Wyeth's rural scenes were far too dark and barren to adorn calendars or book covers.

Except "Christina's World."

The problem with creating an iconic work of realist art is critics will unfailingly dismiss it as trite, sentimental Americana, a "mandatory dorm room poster," though most teenage girls who bought the print had it wrong, mistaking Christina Olson -- then in her mid-50s, and crippled by polio -- for a melancholy, wistful girl chafing at the confines of a narrow, stultifying farm life.

"Christina's World" then was reason enough to blackball Wyeth from the Cool Art Club, but the critics had plenty others. The dean of the Yale School of Art leveled the most stinging criticism applicable to an artist, calling Wyeth "conservative," one who refused to challenge orthodoxy, not least because he stubbornly insisted on painting pastoral scenes rather than rows of psychedelic soup cans and scouring pad packages. What's more, he worked in a naturalistic mode, using milk and egg tempera (which he made himself), a medium that went out of style with the invention of oils during the Renaissance, and that made him a de facto reactionary. In all matters artistic he refused to toe the party line: that realism was a relic from a bourgeois past and that in its proper context art should purposely frustrate the possibility of interhuman understanding; it should, in the words of essayist and poet Zbigniew Herbert, come out in favor of chaos, gesticulating in vacuity or recounting the history of its own sterile spirit.

Worse, you could buy framed prints of his "Master's Bedroom" or "Christina's World" at Bed, Bath and Beyond or Target, right next to the dogs playing poker and the velvet Kenny Rogers. As well as, one might add, Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," another tempera.


IF WYETH WERE AN anti-modernist it was only because he placed the work first and foremost, keeping his ego squarely in the background. Compare and contrast today's art darling Jeff Koons' giant balloon animals, recently exhibited at, of all places, Versailles, with a Wyeth "Distant Thunder," in which the artist's wife Betsy naps on a hillside after a morning of blueberry picking, while the family dog listens nervously to the ominous sounds of an approaching storm. The Koons piece quite consciously has no artistic merit. His toy balloons blown up 100 times their normal size are not even anti-art. They are kitsch, pure and simple, a stunt not unlike his sham short-lived marriage to Italian porn star-turned-lawmaker "La Cicciolina." This is the modern artist's way of saying, "Look at me, clever boy, don't look at the art." The curious thing is anti-art is still believed to have something new to say, even though it has been round at least a century, and even though its purpose is not to say anything, but to massage the artist's giant ego.

One understands an artist's need to gratify his overwhelming ego, but why did so many ostensibly intelligent critics, museum directors and aficionados fall for the idea that anti-art was preferable or superior to traditional art? Quite simply they feared being labeled "conservative" during a time of rapid, chaotic and unprecedented change. It was the artist's (and by extension, the critic's) mission, they reasoned, to be in the avant-garde, not pulling up the rear. And that avant-garde was made of shock troops, terrorizing the masses with outrageous, incomprehensible, or pornographic works. It was all great fun.

Wyeth had no interest in shocking anyone. He was a great admirer of Edward Hopper, who thrived in the early 20th century, when social realism was the accepted art form, and when the term "people's painter," was a badge of honor, an expression of solidarity with the workingman, and not the derogatory label it would become when applied to Wyeth a generation later.

There are those who say Wyeth came along a generation too late. Others, noting his critics are now mostly dead and forgotten, conclude he was before his time, now that we have finally outgrown the childish rebelliousness of anti-art.

I suspect that Wyeth was neither before his time nor after his time. He was and will remain timeless.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.