Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth Dead at 91: Obits in New York Magazine, New York Times

Christina's World, 1948

The American realist painter Andrew Wyeth died on Friday, January 16, 2009. Here is my comment on Jerry Saltz's obit in New York Magazine, which is also available as a comment on their website.

I enjoy Saltz's concise analysis of Christina's World: "a one-painting version of conservative surrealism, a painting with what felt like American values, but that was riddled with mystery and something unknowable." But this single work marks Wyeth's entire inroad into the consciousness of the art elite, the exception that proves his beyond-the-pale status among the cognoscenti, the gatekeepers and the hierophants of high modernist usage.

Norman Rockwell is a similar case, as is LeRoy Neiman. Both found support in the writing of a brash, entertaining, salt-of-the-earth critic like Dave Hickey. Rockwell's traveling retrospective even made a pit stop at the Guggenheim in 2001 during the Age of Krens, but that doesn't prove much: so did Armani and The Art of the Motorcycle.

Will Wyeth eventually enjoy his shining moment of historical revision? Hard to say. The haute art world, where Saltz and other art critics live and write, tends to reject popular, figurative artists such as Wyeth like the plague. Wyeth is sneered at for being facile, illustrative, conformist, naive and theoretically barren, because Christina's World somehow lived in its own severe and separate world, seemingly clueless to post-War theories of abstraction and the simultaneous development of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline etc. Wyeth never wanted to rub shoulders with the AbEx hepcats at the Cedar Bar.

But deep in the pit of the avant garde stomach is also a gnawing fear that Joe Sixpack doesn't give a damn for their rarefied, effete mileu, rather choosing to embrace the overwhelming preponderance of coffee table book images and magazine covers by Wyeth, Rockwell et. al. While the elite will never admit this insecurity, artists like Wyeth threaten their delicate status quo, not through revolutionary daring nor by contesting any theoretical points, but by his innate conservatism, his attention to craft and detail, his marginal and dignified (but some might say trite) rural verities, and by his ability to be understood by a large swath of the general, uninformed public. It is Wyeth's lowest common denominator status that stirs up a potent combination of fear and loathing.

Here are excerpts from Michael Kimmelman's obit in the New York Times:

Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive linchpin in a colorful family dynasty of artists whose precise realist views of hardscrabble rural life became icons of national culture and sparked endless debates about the nature of modern art, died Friday at his home in Chadds Ford, Pa. 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”...

Nonetheless, the perception of Wyeth’s art as an alternative to abstraction accounted for a good portion of its enduring popularity during the mid-years of the last century. Added to this was his personality: self-theatricalizing (his biographer, Richard Meryman, described him as a “self-promoter” and a “closet showman”), Wyeth was not a bohemian, or at least he behaved contrary to the cliché of the bohemian artist. He was also a vocal patriot, which endeared him to some quarters during the Cold War and dovetailed with a general sense that his art evoked a mythic rural past embedded in the American psyche. “America’s absolutely it,” he once said...

In later years, the press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan, not because he was a particularly outspoken partisan in his political views but because he differed in those views from other artists who were very outspoken at the time. Bucking the liberal art establishment, and making a fortune in the process, allowed him to play familiar American roles: the reactionary anti-establishmentarian and the free-thinking individualist who at the same time represented the vox populi. A favorite saying of his was: “What you have to do is break all the rules.” And as bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservatives’ paradoxical idea of cultural disobedience through traditional behavior...


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