Wind from the Sea
The Passing of Andrew Wyeth 1917 – 2009
The gap between Andrew Wyeth and the modern art world is perhaps the same as the disconnection between modern society and the natural environment. Andrew Wyeth painted simple pictures of a simple life in his rural New England America. His painting however reflects on the complexities of even the most basic life lived. The established art community of Andrew Wyeth’s generation shunned his work but he followed his chosen path and ignored his critics and he painted his world as he saw it. In my opinion, this in itself makes Wyeth a great American Painter. He was a man that saw and looked for an understanding of his immediate world, the world he lived in, using his neighbors, their simple lives and the landscape where he lived to capture stories he told us about them on his canvas.
Andrew Wyeth recorded the connection of the natural world and the sustaining human connection of life dependant on the environment. People in Wyeth’s portraits of rural New England America dig in the earth; slaughter their own meat, meat that comes from animals not kept as pets but as resources. Sustainability directly connected to the natural environment. His imagery was of fields, hillsides, wildlife, farmhands, farm tools, fixtures and furniture. He spoke of the tranquility of a simple life juxtaposed to its turbulence, its cruelty, its tenderness and compassion. He used details that connected his subjects to the functional environment, hanging animal carcasses, rifles, hunters and meat hooks. In the detail of his images exists the evidence of natural decay, violence and loss of entropy the nature of any system to run down. Fallen trees broken logs cracked ceilings and peeling paint portray the decay all things must under go.
“Compared to master draftsmen, Wyeth cannot draw,” wrote Washington Post art critic Paul Richard in a 1987 review of an exhibition of the Helga paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. New York’s Village Voice newspaper called Mr. Wyeth’s art “formulaic stuff, not very effective even as institutional realism . . .”
It is hard to imagine that his critics were so cruel so disconnected from his view of the world, from his art. Perhaps his critics suffer from the same disconnection from the natural environment, as does our modern society. We find nourishment in the freezer section of the Super Market without a connection to where our TV dinner came from. Of how the meat, the vegetables became part of the modern meal. A disconnection from the idea, that people worked with their hands in the dirt or bloodied their hands in the slaughter of the turkey that is their dinner, in the microwave.
Many of his critics suggested that Wyeth was out of touch with the artistic trends of his time. Abstraction and non-representational trends in the modern art of his time that have today become artificial, introspective and disconnected from nature, developed into a artificial nature of there own design. I would suggest that many museum directors and art critics have lost their ability to recognize any art that is not of the modern vocabulary they choose to recognize. The masters of the art world share a prejudice that has disconnected them from the natural environment and nature itself. Artists are victims of this prejudice too. Many of today’s contemporary artists are trained to make art that
simply stated, looks like what art is expected to look like. Others seek shocking and controversial imagery hoping to shock the critics into looking. This is not to say that modern art is without merit and that the many artworks are not important and valid. It is a suggestion that the critics and directors are to busy looking at what they believe is important that they ignore the artist who has a different insight a different point of view. These Masters of the Art-World have lost their objectivity their connection to nature. They have become artificial unto themselves and they have lost their vision if they ever had one to begin with. Andrew Wyeth was able to maintain his vision in spite of his critics and he was successful in following the path he chose for himself ignoring the experts. This is not to suggest that we as artists should be representational painters but that we should ask ourselves the deeper questions about our art, to explore our beliefs and intentions. To ask ourselves the hard questions that can’t be answered by the critic but only by our investigations into our own subject matter.
“In the art world today, I’m so conservative I’m radical. Most painters don’t care for me. I’m strange to them,” he said in a 1965 interview with Richard Meryman for Life magazine. “A lot of people say I’ve brought realism back. They try to tie me up with Eakins and Winslow Homer. To my mind they are mistaken. I honestly consider myself an abstractionist. Eakins’ figures actually breathe in the frame. My people, my objects breathe in a different way; there’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract.” Quote Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth wasn’t an artist without personal controversy. In the 1980’s when he unveiled his more than 200 works, 45 paintings and 200 sketches, the Helga series, he shocked the world and his wife who knew nothing about the artwork or the fifteen-year relationship Wyeth had with his model. Helga Testorf was Wyeth’s Chadds Ford neighbor who modeled for him over the fifteen-year period. Many of the paintings and sketches are of Helga nude. His images of her show her beauty and perhaps his love for her. I am not sure if this was a love affair but how can an artist who works so intensely with a subject not be in love. The work received the same welcoming for the critics. It was not of their standard. Perhaps Wyeth revealed too much of his affection for Helga in the work, perhaps his vision was obscured by his love. Still, I find the Helga series hauntingly beautiful, connected to the natural desire between a man and a woman. The work is Illicit, torrid, sinful and at the same time tender, loving and natural.
The prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York refused even to display the Helga paintings. “We had an opportunity to show the Helga series. We quite pointedly and as a conscious decision declined to do so,” said museum director Philippe de Montebello in 1987.
Andrew Wyeth is a great American Artist; his work will be the subject of debate for many years to come. If the Masters of the Art-World ever hear Andrew Wyeth’s voice then perhaps art itself has a chance to move forward. Our modern disconnection with the natural environment, the tendency to overlook the simple complexities in the relationship of ourselves with nature is at the root of why modern art has stood still and why modern
society heads toward failure. We artists need to look again at our world with fresh eyes and we can learn from the legacy Andrew Wyeth has bestowed upon us.
Read More About Andrew Wyeth
UPDATE N.Y. Times Article. For Wyeth Both Praise and Doubt
Washington Post Photo Gallery