Andrew Wyeth is dead at 91, the Washington Post reports. (Go ahead and look at the slideshow. It’s wonderful.) Wyeth was best known for his painting “Christina’s World,” a painting that captured the struggle of his polio-stricken neighbor crawling toward a house. It was a painting that became his defining piece, one that would haunt him. My mother once told me that in an interview, he was asked what the one thing he would change in his work if he could. He said he wouldn’t have put “that girl in that damned painting.” I wonder if there’s any truth to it.
At a lecture for the National Endowment for Humanities, John Updike did a slideshow of American art, narrating it. If you’ve never heard Updike speak, try to find an audio sample. His voice is weathered, but sweet, not bitter. American art, he explained, was put down as being defined by too many lines. It was all “too liney,” sniffed European connoisseurs. But over time, this “flaw” was considered a defining characteristic. You could go through the whole of American art, and find that similar characteristic.
Wyeth conveyed parts of American life that were at once bleak and beautiful. His scenes were simple, never ornate. Where Norman Rockwell thrived on drawing the little trinkets that would appear on a teacher’s desk, Wyeth preferred to draw some grass and the shadows that fall upon dried out wood. He played with shadows in a way that rivaled Edward Hopper, but it seemed like a different austerity entirely — where Hopper was curious about how light could hit a building, Wyeth seemed focused on how the light left it, or how things, generally were left after being touched. It’s not that his work was a study of ruin. Instead, it was the study of subtleties.
Art rooted in subtlety, art that doesn’t beat you over the head with a message. The subtlety of art today comes in its abstraction, in its impenetrability. It’s so subtle you can’t get it, because it’s hidden from you. And then it’s still loud. Look at a Rothko (this one is more subtle than others), and then this. They share a certain liney-ness. Look at the artist’s effort with Christina’s belt. How the creases in her dress cast small shadows. The line of the horizon, and the house set against it. Things don’t blend in these areas. They stand out. But quietly.
Where we now face a difficult climate for the economy, where every forecast from Washington is about how much poorer we are all becoming, Wyeth’s paintings provide a glimpse of the quiet dignity and restlessness that define the American character. You only need look at Christina’s struggle, not as a fool’s errand, but as a great task that can be tackled. You only need to be reassured that her hand is reaching down to move herself forward, not reaching upward and merely hopeful. This can be done.
Andrew Wyeth, rest in peace.
UPDATE: On the official Andrew Wyeth site, they are apparently soliciting people to tell where Wyeth’s work has wound up. If you or anyone you know has an original work by Wyeth, please contact them. Otherwise, just stare at the art in amazement.
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