Andrew Wyeth, Famed and Infamous Artist, Dies at 91posted 2009-01-16 10:23:49 by beth
Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive lynchpin in a colorful family dynasty of artists from tiny Chadds Ford, Penn., whose precise realist views of hardscrabble rural life became icons of national culture and sparked endless debates about the nature of modern art, has died at his home in suburban Philadelphia, The Associated Press reported.
He was 91.
Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.
Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.
Art critics mostly heaped abuse on his work, saying he gave realism a bad name. Supporters said he spoke to the silent majority who jammed his exhibitions. “In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.”
John Updike took up the same cause 25 years later: “In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, the scorn was simple gallery politics; but resistance to Wyeth remains curiously stiff in an art world that has no trouble making room for Photorealists like Richard Estes and Philip Pearlstein and graduates of commercial art like Wayne Thibauld, Andy Warhol, and for that matter, Edward Hopper.”
A minority opinion within the art world always tried to reconcile Wyeth with mainstream modernism. It was occasionally argued, among other things, that his work had an abstract component and was linked to the gestural style of artists like Kline, de Kooning and Pollock, for whom Wyeth expressed general disdain. It is true that especially some of the early watercolors of the 30’s and 40’s, in a looser style, inclined toward abstraction. Contrary to what detractors and some supporters said, his style vacillated over the years, which suited neither those who wanted to say he stayed in a rut his whole career nor those who championed him as a model, as one art historian put it, “of continuity and permanence in the face of instabilities and uncertainties of modern life.”
Wyeth remained a polarizing figure even as the traditional 20th century distinction between abstraction and avant-gardism on the one hand and realism and conservatism on the other came to seem woefully inadequate and false. The only indisputable truth was that his art existed within an American context that encompassed on the one end illustrators like his father, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, and on the other end landscape painters like John Marin, Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt and Fitz Hugh Lane.
One picture encapsulated his fame. “Christina’s World” became an American icon like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” or Whistler’s portrait of his mother or Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Wyeth said he thought the work was “a complete flat tire” when he sent originally it off to the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan in 1948. The Museum of Modern Art bought it for $1,800.
Wyeth had seen Christina Olson, crippled from the waist down, dragging herself across a Maine field, “like a crab on a New England shore,” he recalled. To him she was a model of dignity who refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone. It was dignity of a particularly dour, hardened, misanthropic sort, to which Wyeth throughout his career seemed to gravitate. Olson is shown in the picture from the back. She was 55 at the time. (She died 20 years later, having become a frequent subject in his art; her death made the national news thanks to Wyeth’s popularity.)
It is impossible to tell her age in the painting or what she looks like, the ambiguity adding to the overall mystery. So does the house, which Wyeth called a dry-bone skeleton of a building, a symbol during the Depression of the American pastoral dream in a minor key, the house’s whitewash of paint long gone, its shingles warped, the place isolated against a blank sky. As popular paintings go, “Christina’s World” is remarkable for being so dark and humorless, yet the public seemed to focus less on its gothic and morose quality and more on the way Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism that was distinctive if only for going against the rising tide of abstraction in America in the late 1940’s.