Emphasis on the Magic: A Wyeth Retropective

Andrew Wyeth: Evening at Kuerners, 1970, watercolor on paper with drybrush, 25½ by 39¾ inches. Courtesy Artist Rights Society, New York.



Reaction to the work of Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) has always been binary: he’s either revered or reviled. An exhibition on view through September 17 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—the heart of “Wyeth country”—aims to settle the debate once and for all by disproving the conventional wisdom that he was a master draftsman of shallow interests. The show makes it clear that Wyeth diverged from strict realism not only at the beginning and end of his career. Throughout seven decades of work he distorted, distilled, and transmogrified form and perspective for metaphorical meaning. Wyeth, who insisted he wasn’t a photographic realist at all, painted with a magic realism that draws on surrealism and abstraction.

“Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” includes more than one hundred works from Wyeth’s early watercolors to the last painting before his death. It celebrates the centenary of his birth on July 12, honored by the US Postal Service with twelve stamps showing his works. The exhibition travels to the Seattle Art Museum, where it is on view from October 19, 2017 to January 15, 2018.

The swings in Wyeth’s critical reputation are extreme. His first solo show of Winslow Homer—influenced Maine watercolors in 1937—when he was all of twenty years old-sold out in two days, winning him critical acclaim. By 1965 Wyeth’s art was so popular that Life magazine proclaimed him “America’s preeminent artist.” In 1976, Wyeth became the first living American artist to have a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet critics branded Wyeth’s work corny and drab. Dave Hickey ridiculed his palette of “mud and baby poop.”

The Brandywine retrospective offers a chance for reappraisal. It gives new insights into how much Wyeth’s fascination with World War I and early movies influenced his painting. A group of portraits of his African American neighbors in Pennsylvania, a subject not well-known in his oeuvre, also broadens our knowledge. But the major takeaway is that Wyeth was neither old-fashioned nor new-fangled but both. As he told Smithsonian magazine in 2006, “I like to think that I’m so far behind that I’m ahead.”

Wyeth’s linear, detailed style is certainly realist but, more precisely, it shows the hallmarks of magic realism, a homegrown American response to European surrealism that gained currency in the 1930s and ’40s. Magic realism renders ordinary subjects in a sharply focused, precisely delineated style, but it has an element of suggestive ambiguity, as if secrets lie below the surface. Throughout the galleries, Wyeth’s portraits and landscapes exude this sense of eerie mystery. Far from being nostalgic depictions of the visible world, they are imaginative fabrications—a manipulated masquerade of reality with a frisson of spookiness.

The exhibition’s co-curators, Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine and Patricia Junker of the Seattle Art Museum, devised a chronological path. The first part deals with Wyeth’s early work (1935–47), when he painted expressive, high-keyed, gestural watercolors of Maine and experimented with egg tempera paintings of Chadds Ford, where he explicitly diverged from realism. He heeded the counsel of his father and teacher, the renowned children’s book illustrator N.C. Wyeth: “Paint the light and air around the subject—paint the mystery.”

In the portrait Karl (1948), Wyeth distorted perspective, flattening the space in an attic room at the Kuerner farmhouse in Chadds Ford (one of the artist’s enduring subjects). The stripped-down composition focuses on Karl’s face with its expression of brooding intensity and on a menacing hook on the cracked ceiling. The image (which Wyeth called “the best portrait I ever did”) is far from a sentimental likeness. It is tough and compelling, a haunting symbol of the authoritarian man who had been a German machine gunner in WWI.

Wind from the Sea (1947) is a symbolic portrait of Wyeth’s friend Christina Olson, the crippled subject of his famous 1948 painting Christina’s World (which did not travel from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it’s the equivalent of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa in crowd appeal). Wyeth substituted for Christina a tight close-up of a tattered curtain blowing in the breeze; it’s a portrait in absentia. He said the embroidered birds on the gauzy curtain were as “delicate” as her gentle spirit. As Wyeth told his biographer Richard Meryman, he wanted to represent not factual reality but “my truth behind the fact.”

Landscapes around Kuerner’s farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson farm in Maine predominate in work done from 1950 to 1967. In both these perennial subjects, Wyeth distilled scenes to their essence, reducing detail while injecting a symbolic subtext. And though he has been called an “every-blade-of-grass” realist, many of the temperas are nearly abstract. Snow Flurries (1953) depicts a sprinkling of snow on a hillside, where the grass is scumbled, more suggested than fastidiously painted. “I want the primitive effect when you bring abstraction and the real together,” he told Meryman,

The period of 1968–88 marked Wyeth’s shift into erotic art. He painted nudes of the young teenager Siri in Maine and his German neighbor Helga Testorf in Chadds Ford. Lewis, the Brandywine curator, said at a press preview that the erotic subjects loosened up Wyeth, banishing his inhibitions and unleashing his emotions. He became more daring in composition, overcoming the objective detachment that his painstaking tempera process imposed. The double portrait The Kuerners (1971) stops you in your tracks. In a disturbing scene bristling with psychological undertones, Karl marches forward cradling a rifle, its barrel pointed at his wife Anna, who trails behind. “This is an absolute portrait of those two in a very abstract way,” Wyeth told Thomas Hoving at the time of his Metropolitan Museum exhibition in 1976.

Spring (1978) is a surreal evocation of Karl more than a likeness. At a time when Karl was bedridden and near death, Wyeth portrayed him lying on a hill, his torso coated with snow that looks like a plaster body cast. Thin Ice (1969) is the most abstract of his paintings. Not seen in the US since it was acquired by a Japanese museum, the painting shows a downward view of a frozen pool. It seems like an allover composition of sepia-colored forms, but some are discernible as decaying leaves trapped beneath the surface. The painting hints at both the frozen stasis of death and the opposing force of life, implied by a spray of air bubbles rising from the murk.

During the final two decades of his life (1989–2009), Wyeth produced some of his most complex, ambitious, and unstereotypical work. Snow Hill (1989) is a bizarre fantasy like nothing that came before. He depicts his favorite models of the last half-century dancing energetically around a maypole on a snowy hill, though most of them were dead at the time. It’s magic realism with an emphasis on the magic.

Painted when he was ninety-one, Wyeth’s last tempera, Goodbye (2008), shows the persistent contrast of fact and fiction-exact representation and imaginative freedom-evident in the exhibition. Rarely exhibited, it’s both seascape and dreamscape. An actual building on a hill is painstakingly depicted, with precise pencil lines indicating the details of its windows and cornices. Yet the building almost dissolves in its reflection in the water, its appearance broken by the wake of a passing sloop. A spectral helmsman-perhaps a stand-in for Wyeth as he slips away from life-steers the sailboat as it disappears at the edge of the painting.

“Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” belies the oft-proclaimed view that Wyeth’s work is all expert draftsmanship with little below the surface. As Wyeth said in a 2006 Smithsonian profile, “I think it’s what you take out of a picture that counts. There’s a residue. An invisible shadow.” This exhibition makes the shadows of his best paintings visible.