“A Few Days With Wyeth” by Matthew Ballou

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In June of 2006 I spent three days in Philadelphia visiting the Andrew Wyeth Retrospective, dubbed “Memory and Magic,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The trip was many things for me, and brought out many thoughts, but I have to say that what I loved most was seeing a life lived in painting. I took that profound reality away from those few days. It was a heartening, enlightening, and inspiring experience.

I was always convinced while looking at reproductions of his work that Wyeth’s pieces would be fragile, flimsy, or of eggshell delicacy. I was wrong about this. I understood what tempera painting was, and I realized its technical strength, but I think the muted colors the painter used and the different scale of surface texture it afforded didn’t translate well from the reproductions to my mind. Seeing the works in person lets you know just how robust they are. The build-up on their surfaces and the huge range of textures he created really make the case for him. In spite of their intensely scrutinized and detailed passages, they are truly muscled paintings. And that stalwartness seems to shift onto his watercolors, dry brushes, and drawings in a very interesting way, because it’s not just the materials he used, it’s the integrity of his hand – how his hand firmly rendered a form, sensed the play of light, or whimsically laid in a wash – that really gives solidity and visual backbone to the works overall. It’s also really interesting to note how un-precious some of his handling is, particularly with drawings and smaller paintings. What I mean is that they are very much worked (ripped, scumbled, collaged [believe it or not], rubbed, scraped, etc) with a great deal of forcefulness. Wyeth didn’t paint like a convalescent dabbing his forehead with a tissue; this is real painting.

039_lrgOne of the things that constantly amazed me throughout the exhibition is how this guy was able to keep making powerhouse moves in the context of so much reserve. It’s really pretty astounding. The paintings resonate with point and counterpoint, content and subject, the pictured and the implied, and a lively interplay between those dualities. He could make a 10 foot painting cruise with lines of force, bring massive tonal fields into and out of each other, while at the same time create moments of focus that live in an entirely different timeframe in terms of how the eye reads them. This means that the paintings consistently have 2 or 3 (sometimes more) time signatures within the picture plane. It seems counterintuitive to think of Andrew Wyeth as having an affinity with Abstract Expressionism, but the fact is that his work declares how well-versed he was in a modernist design aesthetic; perhaps more than many of the AbExers actually were. And so many times his brushwork, the way he constructed compositional relationships, and how he used interpolation of colors is precisely related to the best of the high abstractionists. A great deal of that relation is shown in how the facture of illusion was so deftly connected to the designed arrangement of shapes and intervals on the picture plane itself. There’s a pinching and pressing, ease and expansion that happens to the eye as it travels around the best of his works.

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I’d even venture to say that Wyeth was one of the absolute best abstract painters of the last 100 years. I mean abstract in terms of his composition and design, but also in terms of his intention, his conception of the meaning and content of his paintings. It’s all about association, intuition, emotion, sensitivity, consideration, intimacy, contemplation and identification. His willingness to go in deep – and his commitment to keep at it for decade after decade – created a fullness of investigation that is really satisfying.

scan00061232744435But beyond the formal issues is the metaphoric arena that he was aiming to create. He talked (in interviews recorded for the PMA show) about engaging in a reverie of memory and connection, and he often does this in idiosyncratic ways. He was willing to make points, take a stand or two (or four), but do it all without didactic vehemence. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, and that made him willing to fully represent both his own flights of fancy and his most existential musings on the primacy of BEING. And the truth is that he was proving something with his work. He was proving the effect that concentrated, emotive, transformational representation can have on people who are open to its very unique modes of experience. I think that his project was really about identification. It was a story of who and what he identified with in his life: the marginalized individual, the poetic yet banal object, and the pictorially evocative stillness of the soul lost in its own universe of perception. Every one of the elements he built his career on painting – thresholds, vessels, margins, stillness, light – are all about avenues for identification, for himself and for viewers. Wyeth’s dedication to the primacy of subjectivity, humble individuality, and sympathetic observance of particular (and peculiar) experiences is a legacy he has left for all time.

Post Script

The Philadelphia Museum of Art retrospective occurred while Wyeth was still alive. It garnered a great many responses, but one that stood out was the ArtNEWS cover story on the artist (see it here: http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=1904). The piece featured critics Robert Storr and Dave Hickey holding forth, vehemently denigrating Wyeth’s work.

At the time, the people who seemingly missed the aim and intensity of Wyeth’s project mystified me. Passing Wyeth’s work off as merely dingy sentimentality is tantamount to a complete misunderstanding what painting as a form is, why human beings make art, and how the experience of making a work transforms it into a container where we can pour our very humanity. The willful dissembling continued after his death (See the New York Times obituary, here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17deba.html).

But maybe I can understand the reaction now. Wyeth’s work was quietly challenging, its stillness both conservative and undeniably radical, holding a certain ground in spite of the shifting world. Wyeth’s consideration calls viewers to reflect on things in a similar way; perhaps that’s the greatest confrontation embedded in the work. A sly, knowing, ironic, slick work simply can’t operate that way. I think Wyeth knew this, and so opted to retain his so-called muddy palette, so-called kitsch subject matter, so-called anti-modernist aesthetic in order to maintain the sincerity of the view he’d claimed. Let’s add fortitude of constitution to that lengthy list of accolades we ascribe to this great painter and submit to his leading when we see his works. Contemplation, consideration, identification – all great virtues, all offering lasting rewards – not least of which is appreciation: thanks, Andrew.