America's most overrated artist
ANNE R. FABBRI
If you want to make a sure fire-bet for your heirs to collect, just wager on Andrew Wyeth’s future reputation as an artist. A hundred years from now his paintings will be gathering dust in the storage bins of any institution unfortunate enough to have acquired them. The only requests to view them will come from quirky academics in psychology or history trying to decipher the oddities of 20th Century culture, specifically how and why a mediocre artist specializing in banalities became an icon for America’s middle classes.
Afraid of being hoodwinked by artists defined as Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Conceptualists etc., Middle Americans cling to so-called art portraying objects they recognize, landscapes undisturbed by hints of today’s existence and portraits of people they wish were in their own memory album, no matter how badly painted. Wyeth's work reassures them. He consistently rejects visual evidence of the 20th Century (except for one interior view of his family's private plane, 2002) or any acknowledgement of the existence of a world-view. The 21st-Century concept of globalization could not even be mentioned.
Wyeth can best be compared to Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), the most celebrated artist in France during his lifetime, whose art disregarded all the artifacts of the 19th Century. Although Meissonier detested Courbet’s realism and seemed unaware of the revolution being wrought by the Impressionists, he received the highest official honors, including the first Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor awarded to a painter. Crowds converged at his wall in the Paris Salon of 1865, even while a motley group turned towards Manet’s Olympia, primarily to disparage it. Meissonier’s paintings, which occupied treasured places in private collections, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Wallace Collection in London, have become perfect examples of how public taste can err.
Like Meissonier, Andrew Wyethwas the only artist ever awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, bestowed in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, a career politician with no pretension to aesthetic judgment.
Neither a Hopper nor a Homer
It's difficult to believe that any of Wyeth’s ardent fans has ever really looked at a Wyeth painting. Although he’s often mentioned in the same paragraph with Edward Hopper or Winslow Homer, his paintings lack their sense of life. Homer’s views of the sea can almost make you seasick: You feel the moving water, churning and twisting with a power that defies man. You can fairly taste the salt from drops blown against the sailor’s face. It’s sad to move on from Homer’s seascape and return to our prosaic existence.
Hopper infuses his subjects with light that comes from the radiance of the sky or the lone lamppost in the street. You might not understand why that figure gazes out the window, but you’ll never forget the pulsating light playing around every solid object. Unfortunately, Wyeth simply does not and cannot create this magic found in all great art. He misses in every aspect.
Do you feel the texture?
Great art doesn’t tell us what a bird looks like or the color of apples. It tells us things we feel down to our fingertips: the softness of the feathers on a bird’s chest, the dry skin of an apple enclosing the crisp, juicy interior. We feel the drop of water on the underside of a grape leaf in a still life painting by Caravaggio. Wyeth’s attempts in this direction live up to the genre description. They really are lifeless.
All the air is sucked out of a Wyeth painting. Yes, the candle flames might be turned as if wind- directed, but we don’t feel the draft. Despite his attempts, Wyeth paints only suspended motion.
Look at his grasses. Do you feel the texture of growing plants, their curving tendrils close to the stem? Do you sense the separateness of leaves on a branch? Or are they merely a two-dimensional pattern on a rectangular surface?
Wyeth’s grazing cows must be cardboard pasted on surface decoration: They cannot move or breathe. Has the painting given you a heightened awareness of life? The depressing colors of Wyeth’s limited palette will leave you hungering to embrace the beautiful sky, trees and flowers when you exit the museum.
Christina’s World (1948) (deemed too fragile to travel by the Museum of Modern Art, which thus happily saved us from all those weeping viewers) propelled Wyeth to mass recognition, for all the wrong reasons. Does it really matter whether or not the woman is disabled? Wyeth's wife Betsy was the primary model for the painting, and she is the one who titles his work. Think of that and reconsider. Is the horizon line always so high because Wyeth could never paint a sky that seems imbued with its own natural light? Does the composition hold together in any sense? Did he deliberately reject rules of perspective, or is it that he never really understood them? Perhaps shallow spaces and figures that might really be corpses reveal his capability or lack thereof.
If you like Hallmark cards, this is your show
The Art Museum's current Wyeth retrospective exhibition is, as always at PMA, beautifully installed, this time on a thematic basis so you can compare the artist's progress in paintings of the same subject rendered 50 years apart. The lighting is perfect, and the traffic will flow nicely, ending at a gift shop stocked to the gills with Wyeth reproductions and Americana. The corridor adjacent to the gift shop hosts a small exhibition, “Andrew Wyeth in Context,” consisting of small paintings by 20th-Century American artists, all of them better painters than Wyeth. Works by fine artists such as John Marin, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper and Arthur Dove will help dispel the ennui of this retrospective.
If you like Hallmark cards and soap operas and have never questioned American hegemony, this is your show. Open your eyes and look, but don’t waste your money on an Andrew Wyeth print even if it is signed by the artist and numbered. It has absolutely no intrinsic value.
Anne R. Fabbri is a writer and art critic who has also worked as a museum director, curator and lecturer on art history. She lives in Strafford.
To read Andrew Mangravite's review of the Wyeth show, click here.
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