Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 30, 2015
Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In Exh. cat. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2014. 212 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781938922190)
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, May 4–November 30, 2014
Andrew Wyeth. Wind from the Sea (1947). Tempera on hardboard. Overall: 18 1/2 x 27 9/16 in. (47 x 70 cm); framed: 26 1/8 x 35 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. (66.4 x 89.5 x 7 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of Charles H. Morgan. © Andrew Wyeth.

This exhibition and accompanying catalogue of Andrew Wyeth paintings illustrating views looking out of and through windows are the most recent examples of a sea change in scholarship on the artist. In 1977, Robert Rosenblum called Wyeth at once the most overrated and underrated artist of the twentieth century (cited in Henry Adams, “Wyeth’s World,” Smithsonian Magazine [June 2006]: 84–92). Wanda Corn has labeled the critical and academic hostility to Wyeth’s work throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century “the Wyeth curse.” In 2005, Anne Classen Knutson organized a session called “Rethinking Andrew Wyeth” at the College Art Association’s (CAA) annual conference; she also organized a Wyeth retrospective exhibition and catalogue, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2005–6; Anne Classen Knutson, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, exh. cat., Atlanta and Philadelphia: High Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli, 2005). The catalogue contributions by Knutson, Michael R. Taylor, and Kathleen A. Foster looked anew at Wyeth’s art, identifying neglected positive essays from the past and reevaluating Wyeth’s kinship with Surrealism, manipulation of viewpoints, “sinister surveillance,” the language of things, as well as his focus on objects and memory, symbolism, interest in witches and disguise, and relationships to Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and Albrecht Dürer. Knutson’s CAA session evolved into an elegantly designed and presented 232-page book edited by David Cateforis also called Rethinking Andrew Wyeth published in 2014 (Berkeley: University of California Press). Cateforis’s book features Corn’s abovementioned summary, “Lifting the Curse” (60–85), and eight additional essays (some already published elsewhere). Cateforis provides a dense fifty-eight-page chronology of the critical praise of Wyeth’s work beginning in 1937 that evolved into largely vituperative attacks starting in the 1960s but that began showing increasingly thoughtful reappraisals by the time of the artist’s death in 2009.

Curator Nancy K. Anderson explained at an accompanying Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) conference entitled “Andrew Wyeth in Context: Contemporary Art and Scholarship” held on October 17, 2014, that the idea for the Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In exhibition was accidental; it was seeded by the 2009 acceptance of the gift of Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea (1947), an eerie tempera painting depicting shredded lace window curtains in Christina Olson’s house in Maine (adjacent to the site of Wyeth’s iconic 1948 painting, Christina’s World). A museum colleague looked at the composition and asked, “Is that painting an anomaly?” Anderson then investigated this theme in Wyeth’s work and found at least three hundred paintings of windows. Wyeth’s son Nicholas told her that “my father was fascinated by windows.” The exhibition features sixty works that explore the subject of windows, including watercolors, drawings, and tempera paintings. Anderson also noted her gratitude to Wyeth’s biographer, Richard Meryman, who gave her access to more than one hundred hours of his taped conversations with the artist. Meryman and the National Gallery have also published a recent book based on these transcripts: Andrew Wyeth: A Spoken Self-Portrait: Selected and Arranged by Richard Meryman from Recorded Conversations with the Artist, 1964–2007 (2013).

Anderson emphasized the absence of human figures in the exhibition, possibly defensively. Christopher Benfey, in his generally positive review in the New York Review of Books of the NGA catalogue, Cateforis’s edited collection, and Meryman’s book, characterized the 2014 NGA Wyeth show as an “exorcism” of the 1987 NGA exhibition of the Helga paintings, dominated by a single human figure and accompanied by misgivings by the then curatorial staff (Christopher Benfey, “Wyeth and the ‘Pursuit of Strangeness,’” The New York Review of Books [June 19, 2014]). Figures that appear in early sketches were subjected to what Anderson calls Wyeth’s “rigorous subtraction” and do not appear in the final tempera paintings in the exhibition, Groundhog Day (1959) and Off at Sea (1972). Anderson included many preliminary drawings and sketches in both the exhibition and catalogue in order to demonstrate Wyeth’s reductive process of simplification and choice to create “structure, color, line, and texture” (3) and “complexities of reflective surfaces” which in her view can be masked by the “surface realism” (16).

Another subtraction emphasized by curators Anderson and Charles Brock in the catalogue introduction is to identify many of the plates by their numbers only, omitting the titles that were chosen by Betsy Wyeth. Future scholars will perhaps spend some time on the complex relationship between Andrew Wyeth and his very organized and forceful business-manager-wife, Betsy. As is sometimes discussed in essays about artists’ wives (e.g., Richard Feigen’s chapter on artists’ wives in his Tales from the Art Crypt [New York: Knopf, 2000]), the wife is usually excluded from the key moments of creation in the artist’s studio and, as a result, may become especially controlling on later occasions. Andrew allowed Betsy to preside over the final naming of paintings after they emerged from the studio and were revealed to friends and colleagues; this was often an almost ceremonial occasion with Betsy consulting dictionaries and delighting in multiple meanings of the terms she bestowed on works and sometimes altered several times. The NGA curators have intuited, correctly in my view, that the narratives suggested by Betsy’s titles may distract from both the artist’s original intentions and the viewers’ personal responses.

The exhibition was given elegant and bright gallery space, and visitors that I watched were clearly comparing the artist’s choices and decisions visible in the splashy watercolors and nervous pencil lines as he honed in on the final, more precise tempera compositions. It was instructive to look at the different textures of the papers chosen for the watercolors and the way the paper topography trapped the overlying paint applications, or at the slashing of paint and paper with a brush handle, raising up tufts of paper and repositioning those tufts in almost papier-maché-like projections embedded in paint as part of the window shadows. Such evidences of process are of course not as visible in the catalogue’s photographic reproductions. At the same time, by adhering to the windows theme, the curators were able to select only a few paintings that included Wyeth’s acidic sap greens, ultramarine blues, and other bright colors that are characteristic of many of his landscapes involving water and expanses of grass from his last decades.

The catalogue has sixty full-page plates, organized by subject, as was the exhibition. Anderson’s catalogue essay provides an in-depth chronology of the creation and provenance of Wind from the Sea, including Wyeth’s relationships with Christina and Alvaro Olson, his personal symbolism, contrasting use of watercolor and tempera media, the original purchase of the painting and its transfer to Charles Hill Morgan (the founding director of the Mead Art Museum). Anderson ends her essay with a discussion of the impact on Wyeth of the 1945 death of his father, illustrator N. C. Wyeth, and their respective uses of windows.

Picking up on ideas Taylor discussed in the Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic exhibition catalogue, Brock proposes Wyeth as an artistic heir to Charles Sheeler and Hopper, who were contemporaries of N. C. Wyeth, and discusses the Armory Show, World War I, Sheeler’s dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, and Sheeler’s fascination with windows and other analogous thresholds. Brock notes that Sheeler displaced the figure with the machine, but Hopper explored “humanity’s uneasy relationship to the urban and natural worlds” (56), and “Hopper was a model for Wyeth in terms of how to cultivate a personal vision within the restraints of a domestic life and the limited pictorial means of the window grid” (56). Wyeth’s “contradictory, paradoxical, and at times duplicitous nature” (65) is evident in his relationships with his father and wife; the dualities and “double vision” (69) are seen in the discipline of tempera versus the chaos of watercolor, Pennsylvania versus Maine, and detachment versus close personal relationships. Brock characterizes Sheeler, Wyeth, and Hopper as three artists seeking reduction and abstraction; he calls the art of all three men a “disappearing act” in which “the figure was explicitly present, displaced by a machine, or implied by its absence,” “performed inside and outside empty rooms, back and forth across the threshold of a window” (77).

The “Andrew Wyeth in Context” conference continued for a second day as a scholars’ symposium in the galleries of the Brandywine River Museum of Art on October 18. At the NGA, Cateforis, Corn, Foster, and Knutson were joined at the podium by newer Wyeth scholars. Edwin Harvey looked intently at Wyeth’s Hay Ledge (1957) and how it represented Christina Olson’s brother Alvaro and his sacrificial choice to put away his dory and preferred life as a fisherman in order to care for his disabled sister and to take up farming. Harvey emphasized the materiality of the paint surface, the texture, the incorporation of splatters and drips into the hay, and noted that the painting “gets better the longer you look.” Abbie Sprague further discussed the tempera medium and other tempera revival practitioners; Leo Mazow brought in comparisons with Hopper’s hotels; and artist-photographer James Welling noted that Wyeth “gave him the tools to perceive the world.”

I visited the exhibition twice, and the galleries were full on both occasions. When I asked in June, only a month after the exhibition had opened, the catalogue had almost sold out and had to be reprinted to make it to the end of November. This figure-less “exorcism”/exhibition seems to have been a success.

Joyce Hill Stoner
Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture, and Director of the Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, University of Delaware

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