Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2016
David Cateforis, ed. Rethinking Andrew Wyeth Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 248 pp.; 90 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780520280298)
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David Cateforis’s Rethinking Andrew Wyeth—an anthology of new and republished essays by well-known scholars of American and modern art—will prove invaluable to anyone studying the work or life of this controversial artist. Sturdily constructed and beautifully presented by the University of California Press, its 107 high-quality images (91 in color, 16 in black and white) illustrate nine individual texts, which are prefaced by an editor’s introduction and followed by a compilation of survey data from two major exhibitions of Wyeth’s works (one from 1973, the other from 2006).

Two of these nine essays have previously appeared elsewhere and are likely already familiar to scholars of American art and visual culture: Alexander Nemerov’s “The Glitter of Night Hauling: Andrew Wyeth in the 1940s,” which was published in The Magazine Antiques in 2012 (179 [May/June]: 146–55), and Randall C. Griffin’s “Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World: Normalizing the ‘Abnormal’ Body,” an article published in 2010 in the journal American Art (24, no. 2 [Summer]: 30–49). Largely unconcerned with ongoing debates about Wyeth’s successes and failures as a fine artist, Nemerov and Griffin examine instead the popular-cultural contexts of two of his works, demonstrating the capacity for Wyeth’s pictures (if not quite for his paintings, that is, for his “art” as such) to serve as windows onto the visual cultures of specific moments in America’s past. Night Hauling (1944), in Nemerov’s analysis, is a pacified, state-side revision of the sublime imagery of the aerial bombing campaigns playing out overseas. Griffin’s Christina’s World (1948) is a postwar, mid-polio-epidemic exploration of the humanity of a disabled human body. Together, these two studies indicate a new and unburdened direction for Wyeth scholarship beyond the narrow confines of the history of modern art.

The first of the new essays is Cateforis’s “Andrew Wyeth in Critical Perspective,” which surveys the professional criticism of Wyeth’s work from the late 1930s (when Wyeth first began to show his work publically) through the artist’s death in 2009. Cateforis’s contribution alone makes Rethinking Andrew Wyeth a worthy read for scholars of twentieth-century art, for it distills a mammoth body of literature into a succinct, manageable form.

The one drawback to Cateforis’s essay may be the flipside of its primary strength: specifically, the degree to which it avoids evaluation in favor of a kind of expository objectivity. One often finds oneself wanting a more critical engagement with the continuously evolving premises of professional art criticism to which Wyeth’s works were subjected—those, for example, that made his works in one instance “modern” and in another “traditional,” or that made the painter himself in one context a populist panderer and in another a heroic loner. Cateforis would have much to offer in these regards, having previously written a book on Wyeth’s widely respected modernist contemporary, Willem de Kooning. Nonetheless, the value of Cateforis’s essay as a skillfully annotated bibliography of Wyeth criticism is absolute.

Several of the other new essays may be similarly helpful for scholars with narrower areas of focus already in mind. These include contributions by Joyce Hill Stoner, Katie Robinson Edwards, Francine Weiss, and Patricia Junker.

Stoner’s “The Messages in Andrew Wyeth’s Medium” offers something of a long overdue update to Elaine de Kooning’s “Andrew Wyeth Paints a Picture,” which appeared in ARTnews in 1950 (49, no. 1 [March]: 38–41, 54–56) and documented the artist’s materials and techniques. A personal acquaintance of Wyeth’s and a favored conservator of his works, Stoner supports her essay with firsthand knowledge that will be welcomed by those readers (a historically rare but growing group) who acknowledge the materiality of Wyeth’s works in addition to their imagery.

Edwards’s “Laymen, Experts, and Midcentury America: Jackson Pollock and Andrew Wyeth” demonstrates the kind of important new work that Cateforis’s primer on Wyeth criticism can facilitate, bringing a novel subtlety of insight and depth of research to the familiar story of Wyeth’s entanglement in the formation of America’s identity as a cultural and global-political power during the early years of the Cold War. Wyeth entered the art market in the late 1930s as a critical darling but experienced mid-career rejection in the postwar period, suffering, as Edwards explains, from critics’ and curators’ rapidly changing and often simultaneously conflicting notions of Americanness, modernism, and cultural high and low. Whereas Wyeth’s famous contemporary, Jackson Pollock, had a consistent critical champion in Clement Greenberg, who anchored the reception of Pollock’s work in the cultural realms of the progressive, the innovative, and the dissident, Wyeth had no such stable ally. Instead, as Edwards demonstrates, his reputation was pulled widely across the cultural landscape by one divergent critical interpretation after another, being heralded as boldly innovative one day and regressively traditional the next.

Weiss’s contribution, “Kindred Spirits: Robert Frost and Andrew Wyeth,” expounds Wyeth’s creative process through comparisons with that of the American poet Robert Frost, and vice versa, including historically specific examinations of the high-brow and popular-cultural contexts in, toward, and against which these two men understood themselves to be working. Passing references to Wyeth’s affinity toward Frost and his poetry have long been commonplace in writing about Wyeth. Here they are explained in depth, including a detailed account of the direct communications between these two mutual admirers. Weiss’s essay thus fills a need for a single, authoritative source that can be cited by future scholars of Frost and Wyeth alike.

It may be noted that Weiss attends primarily to the most literary and figurative aspects of Wyeth’s works, which she likens to “visual equivalents of pastorals” (144). The more plastic matters of form, composition, and materiality, which have the potential to enrich even the most nuanced iconographic interpretations of his paintings, go largely unaddressed, despite the fact that Wyeth spoke often in published interviews about the importance (and the general underappreciation) of these matters of form and composition in his works. Supporters of the recovery of Wyeth’s reputation as an important modern artist may thus lament that such things were beyond the scope of Weiss’s literary lens, which subtly favors the poet Frost over the painter Wyeth. However, that which Weiss does, she does well, likely to the point of inspiring future writers to flesh out those specters of materiality that her provocative iconographic analyses invariably call forth.

Junker’s “Andrew Wyeth, Rebel,” the eighth out of nine essays in Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, reconsiders Wyeth’s often maligned turn toward secretive, erotic figure painting in the late 1960s and 1970s by taking seriously “the shock value of hyperrealism” in the twilight of modernism’s fascination with abstractionism (158). Toeing a fine line between interrogation and argument, and deftly situating individual biography within broader social and cultural histories, Junker sketches the framework of a historical moment in which Wyeth’s finely wrought nudes, featuring the young model Siri Erickson and the more mature Helga Testorf, were no less timely and provocative than Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946–66), which first appeared publically, and quite sensationally, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1969. A superb piece of writing, Junker’s fresh engagement with the most often disparaged portions of Wyeth’s oeuvre is as compelling as it is ambitious.

The other two of the nine essays in Rethinking Andrew Wyeth are Wanda M. Corn’s “Lifting the Curse” and Donald Kuspit’s “Surviving the Conceptual Collapse of Art in the Modern Age of Anxiety: Andrew Wyeth’s Place in Twentieth-Century Art.” The latter, which appears at the end of the book, is something of an outlier, for its tone is more art-critical—that is, more overtly opinionated—than those of the more ostensibly objective analyses that precede it. Drawing widely from modern philosophy and cultural criticism, Kuspit weighs the gains and losses of Conceptual art against those of twentieth-century figurative realism, strongly favoring the latter. Wyeth’s works, he claims, have maintained a place for meaning and substance in an art culture otherwise evacuated of such things by the early twentieth-century rise and late century predominance of increasingly restrictive and nihilistic practices of Conceptual art. Despite his compelling prose and clever interweaving of a broad range of ideas, Kuspit’s argument is ultimately more ambitious than thorough, with many of its historically complicated terms being insufficiently defined and critiqued: “nobility,” “nature,” “art,” and “anxiety,” to name a few. The closing references to a primitive American landscape and the naively “spiritual” colonial artists who engaged it exemplify a problematic play with a handful of traditional historical constructs that most current scholars of American art and history no longer espouse. It is also notable, in this regard, that Kuspit never quotes Wyeth directly, despite the clarity and intelligence of the artist’s many published remarks about the means and ends of his “realism.”

Kuspit focuses in particular on Wyeth’s highly detailed portraits of Helga Testorf, his vivid descriptions of which work together with those of Junker to encourage the reader further to reconsider these pictures in novel intellectual contexts. Indeed many of the essays in Rethinking Andrew Wyeth will overlap productively with one another in the reader’s memory. Nemerov and Junker, for example, independently interpret two of Wyeth’s paintings of water in directly compatible contexts, both centering around Wyeth’s imaginative concept of a place (Germany) that he knew only secondhand: to Nemerov’s iconographic connection between the bioluminescent seawater in Night Hauling and the aerial munitions that fell across Europe during World War II, Junker adds a waterfall in the background of one of Wyeth’s Helga pictures—Overflow (1978)—which the artist characterized as a “dreamy” vision of “Germany” (175). Kuspit’s essay also brings Cateforis’s and Edwards’s texts to mind, for it indicates that Wyeth’s works are continuing to be employed as evidence in a diverse array of impassioned cultural critiques that largely transcend the artist’s own motivations and beliefs.

This matter of scholarly motivation, and of distinctions between art criticism and art history, brings me, finally, to Corn’s “Lifting the Curse,” which elegantly restates and updates the ideas about Wyeth’s art that she first presented in her 1974 New York University dissertation, “Andrew Wyeth: The Man, His Art, and His Audience.” Corn remarks (once at the outset of her new essay and then again several pages later) that her dissertation reads, in hindsight, as a defense against Wyeth’s detractors from the 1960s as much as it does as an academic analysis motivated primarily by then-current art-historical interests and methods. She felt the need then, and still does today, to refute, or at least to complicate, the common presumptions that Wyeth was merely an “illustrator,” that his art was simplistic and “not modern,” and that his audience was “artistically and politically conservative” (67). Yet Corn’s 1974 entry into the Wyeth debate goes unmentioned in Cateforis’s summary of Wyeth criticism—likewise, the ideas expressed in her 1973 exhibition catalogue, which preceded her dissertation, are mentioned only very briefly in passing—suggesting that Cateforis may have believed these texts to be more academic art-historical than professional-critical. This reader agrees with both interpretations, acknowledging that the line between academic and critical writing about Wyeth has always been blurry, and that it continues to be difficult to draw. Indeed as a new generation of Wyeth studies finds it legs, such difficulty is reason for critics to take the time to contend with the likes of Corn’s dissertation, and likewise for art historians to do the same, as well as to engage open-mindedly with the observations made by Wyeth’s critics over the last seventy-odd years.

Yet one feels, now and then, while reading through the collected essays in Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, that scholars analyzing Wyeth today feel problematically little need to explicitly contend with or synthesize prior claims and beliefs about this major American artist, preferring instead to start fresh, as if to reset the terms of the debate. Wyeth studies will go further faster, I think, if a middle ground can be struck: to break down and filter through the old, binary arguments on the way to developing new and more synthetic knowledge. That being said, Cateforis’s book suggests quite strongly that the future of Wyeth studies is bright, and that the “Wyeth curse” that Corn has long lamented is indeed gradually beginning to lift.

Edwin R. Harvey
independent scholar

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.