Andrew Wyeth Weathers Well

Wyeth--"Northern Point"

Remember those halcyon days of youth when one discovery quickly gave way to another? Do you recall the heady rush of experiencing things for the first time? The days when you were such a novice that you thought the bubbles in Lambrusco made it a complex wine? Or that music simply didn’t get any more sophisticated than The Who’s Tommy album? Such things remind us that it’s not always a good idea to revisit our formative experiences. Then again, sometimes we take trips down Memory Lane in which we observe things to the side of the path that we failed to notice on the first stroll.

I confess that I tend to err on the side of nostalgia-avoidance, an experience born from gagging while re-watching too many films I once loved and now see as landfill material. Still, when the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford opened the exhibit Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond, I knew I had to see it before it closed on July 12. Wyeth was my first love in the world of art. You grow up working-class poor, and art is frivolous nonsense for snobs and social climbers. Or so my boyhood self thought. But there was something about the millions of little dry-brush paint slashes on Wyeth’s canvasses that reeled me in. No doubt the soft browns, beige-tinged yellows, and steely grays of his pastoral scenes reminded me of spending time on my grandparents’ farm, in Pennsylvania no less, just a few hours down the road from where Wyeth encamped in Chadds Ford (when he wasn’t summering in Maine). Psychology 101 students could probably make a case that I saw “Christina’s World” about the time I was fixated on devloping a values system that included empathy. So I went to Hartford. Is Andrew Wyeth still my favorite artist? Not by a long shot, but I was delighted to find that I still found pleasure in pictures I hadn’t viewed in decades. So delighted, in fact, that Emily and I hightailed it to Rockland, Maine, this past summer to see more.

Of the two experiences, the Hartford show was more rewarding artistically and Rockland for ambience. The Hartford show had several of Wyeth’s signature works. One of my favorites was “April Wind,” his portrait of James Loper, a black friend, sitting on a log with his coat collar dissolving into his hunched shoulders. Yeah, that’s what early April is like—exactly! There was also the ironically but appropriately titled “Chambered Nautilus,” a shell of a different sort—Wyeth’s  gaunt, hollow-eyed mother-in-law sitting upright on her death bed, her world reduced to faint images lying beyond a tattered gauzy window curtain. There was also “Northern Point,” which was one of the first paintings that taught me that emotion can be communicated through small bits of information. (See above) It’s simply a roofline adorned by a lightening rod with empty coastline looming beyond the bird’s eye view. It’s also everything you need to know about how loneliness feels. But the image that sent us toward Maine was “Christina Olson,” the crippled woman who was the subject of his most famous painting. Here’s she neither young nor posed among sylvan splendor, rather a middle-aged, chisel-faced recluse sitting in a doorway half obscured by shadow. (left)  A metaphor for what we see and what we don’t? For our passages through life? Of dreams deferred? Sure; why not?

One of the larger collections of Wyeth outside of Chadds Ford resides at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. There’s even a Wyeth Center there, though last summer’s exhibit was mainly of spectacular muscular images from Rockwell Kent and not-so-inspiring ones from Andrew’s son Jamie. (Confession: I’ve never cared much for Jamie Wyeth’s art. What’s good about it is what he ripped off from the old man and what’s bad about it is what he tried to do that wasn’t ripped off from the old man!) Frankly, many of last summer’s pictures on display at the Farnsworth were underwhelming. Some, in fact, give ammunition to Wyeth critics who say he was a superb draftsman, a decent illustrator, and a mediocre painting. The highlight for me was “Turkey Pond,” which shows a crusty Maine neighbor forcefully striding across an open field. And even it, I must confess, seemed heavy—the left arm unnaturally hinged at the shoulder and almost Popeye-like in deportment. But here’s the highlight--the Farnsworth also owns and operates the Olson home in nearby Cushing, the very one from “Christina’s World,” and the place where the Wyeths often summered.

If you get up that way, do not miss the experience of visiting one of the most ambience-soaked almost-empty homes you’ll ever see. If you’ve ever wondered what inspired Andrew Wyeth’s tiny brush strokes, walk among the fields by the property. Stand at the spot where Christina gazed up the hill at her house. Look at the color and texture of the walls, and it’s like standing inside one of Wyeth’s paintings. Even Christina’s geraniums are there, as is the wavy glass through which Wyeth viewed the outside the world, the weathered boards of the tool shed he so often painted, and the multiple pastel hues of doors found in his work. Go there and let your imagination roam.

So do I think Andrew Wyeth really was an artistic genius? Compared to whom? Bah. Let others do the comparisons. Wyeth painted with a somber palette, but seeing him anew made me happy to recapture some of that revelatory light from the past.—Rob Weir

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