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


Video Review: Farrelly Brothers Make Worst Film of the Decade

No knuckleheads harmed, but two made this train wreck.

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Fox Searchlight, 92 mins. PG (for Pretty God-awful)
No Stars

When you review things one is often approached by others to opine on the best this, or the worst that. I often dissemble in such situations. I recall the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. When asked what the best religion is he replied, “It’s like asking, ‘What is the best medicine?’ I say to you, that depends on what is wrong with you!”

Having just dissembled, I am now prepared to say three things. First, this is probably the only time you will ever hear the Dalai Lama invoked in any context involving the Farrelly brothers. Second, viewing this piece of detritus is my own damn fault. I usually avoid the Farrellys the way a teenager avoids a chastity sermon, but I was told that The Three Stooges was different and that I would be surprised. Third, I was surprised. I am prepared to say that the Farrelly brothers’ take on The Three Stooges wins an award. It is the single most inane, inept, and pathetic effort at movie-making of the decade. The only—and I mean only—thing that’s the slightest bit intriguing about this film is that the three principals—Chris Diamantopoulous, Will Saso, and Sean Hayes—look a lot like Moe, Curly, and Larry. As for the rest, what it lacks is everything. That starts with the script.

Bobby Farrell and Mike Cerrone gave the lads a biographical creation story–orphans tossed onto the steps of a Catholic orphanage. The pratfall and violence-prone trio are, of course, completely unadoptable and come of age (and beyond) under the tutelage of nuns, half of whom love the lads and half of whom consider alternative vocations every time they’re in their presence. For the record, the actual Three Stooges grew up in lower middle-class New York City Jewish families, not a Catholic orphanage. If this were the only thing wrong with the script, it would only be a small scrap, not the complete landfill that it is. I will concede that the material of the original act wasn’t exactly written by Talmudic scholars, but Farrell and Cerrone have plumbed new depths of stupidity in a story arc that involves, among things, a nun played an actor in drag (Larry David), an effort to save the orphanage, nuns in thongs, and close encounters of the worst kind with the cast of Jersey Shore. Stop, you guys are killing me!

The actors look the part, but they lack the timing of the original Stooges, the special effects are more ham-handed than those of the 1930s and 40s, and the saccharine sentimentality of the story robs the Stooges of one of the things that made them “funny” (for those who thought they were): their meanness. Let’s face it, true comedy is mean; there is always a butt of every joke and the Three Stooges often cast themselves as both punch lines and punching bags.  When the Stooges took on outsiders, it was generally those in positions of authority (like nuns, for instance). In most episodes, the boys (sort of) bonded, but each was a walking id—no filters, no grand plans, and “soitantly” no sentimentality.

Leave it to the Farrelly brothers to be even more base and stupid than Moe, Curly, and Larry. Compared to Bobby and Peter, the Three Stooges have the wisdom and intellectual heft of, well, the Dalai Lama.


Roadside Coffees to Avoid

Dumping on Starbucks has become such a snob sport that there’s mounting pressure to make it a medal-awarding event at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Although I understand the concern of those who worry about the homogenization of the planet, you’ll get no snarky anti-Starbucks remarks from me. As capitalists go, Starbucks has more social conscience than most but, more to the point, it brews a reliably decent (though not transcendent) cup of Joe—especially if you ask for dark roast. I draw the line at Yuppie pretentiousness and refuse to order a “Grande,” a “Venti,” or any other term other than small, medium, or large, but when I’m on the road, I seek out Starbucks because at least I can drink a cup without reaching for a carsickness bag. Starbucks is like Subway—good of kind.

I’ve been on the road quite a bit lately and can offer a public service guide of what not to drink under any circumstance. Below are “for external use only” toxins whose ingestion could result in the need for a liver-stomach transplant. I mention only coffee, defined as a beverage in which water is brewed with roasted and ground coffee beans. There is no such thing as “blueberry” or “French vanilla” coffee. Ditto any liquid into which flavored Coffee-Mate or other such oxymoronic substance is added. If you dump syrup, whipped cream, or additional flavor of any kind to a cup of Joe, stop kidding yourself; go to the cupboard, and eat several tablespoonfuls of sugar and be done with it! But never partake of any of these–

                  1. Seattle’s Best: Hands-down the worst brew in North America and a lie from the outset since Starbucks is also Seattle-based. It’s a toss-up which is worst, the thinness of the brew or the utter vileness of it. The only resemblance between this and coffee is that Seattle’s Best is (sort of) brown.

                  2. New England Coffee: This one is all over my region and damned if I know why. It’s disgusting and seems to have been roasted with some sort of artificial sweetener that destroys whatever coffee taste might have been embedded in the original beans.
                  3. Dunkin’ Donuts: “America runs on Dunkin’?” How? It is utterly tasteless. Total crap—like the donuts, which are calories without a cause.

                  4. Most diner coffees: See those little pots on the warmer? These are death to coffee, whose oils break down under heat in a matter of minutes. If you see an oil slick on the top of the pot, don’t go there! Coffee not drunk immediately should be poured into an insulated carafe. Most diner coffee will give you a tummy ache faster than you can say, “Check please.”

                  5. Green Mountain Coffee: Okay, I love Vermont and I admire its branding efforts but let’s face it, you’ve never seen Juan Valdez harvesting beans from Vermont’s shady hillsides. Many GMC offerings taste burnt and others cry out for assistance. It’s the kind of coffee that tempts one to add sugar and lots of milk. Once you’re at that point, why not drink a cup of Maxwell House?

                  6.  Autocrat Coffee:  I can’t believe there’s actually a company with the moxie (sorry to mix drinks!) to call itself this. It’s even harder to believe that it’s been around for more than a century. It comes from Rhode Island. My theory is that the mob runs it and tells people, “Drink this, or you’ll drink with the fishes.”

                  7. Carpe Diem Coffee: That’s Latin for “seize the day.” Seize your bowels is more like it.

                  8. K-Cups and its ilk: Expecting decent coffee to be brewed by pushing a button that injects hot water through a tiny plastic cups is like believing that Santa Claus really can squeeze through a chimney. These coffee systems” are simply rest area vending machines sans the smelly adjoining rest rooms. But they’re just as crappy as the latter. Any restaurant using these should prompt you to order bottled water instead.

Is it any wonder there’s a Starbucks on every street corner? I’m there. I’m anywhere that doesn’t sell Seattle’s Best or the next seven in the Coffee Hall of Shame!