Essayists have spilled copious puddles of ink regarding Andrew Wyeth's relationship, or lack thereof, to art history. But bottom line -- he is his own man. Now an octogenarian and as committed to his métier as ever, he continues to work prolifically at a high level of skill and artistic resonance. The Boca Raton Museum of Art has organized an exhibition of his work, correctly titled "Andrew Wyeth: American Master," and it must be seen.
For one, this show has some historical importance insofar as it may now be impossible to have a career like Wyeth's in the contemporary art world. These days it's difficult to imagine that an artist might receive acclaim for documenting his rural surroundings and fellow denizens, however inspired his treatment of them. (At least difficult to imagine outside of photography; the work of photographer William Eggleston can be seen to have Wyethian qualities.) The Boca Museum just took down a show of Charles Burchfield, who represents a kindred spirit -- an artist who cherry-picked his Modernist influences and otherwise kept his aesthetic and social distance from the urban avant-garde. Today we wouldn't expect to see the New York art glossies covering some equivalent character, hard at work on a watercolor of a dirt road, even if this person were consummately stylish.
The Wyeth show spans a 60-year career, beginning with some watercolor landscapes from the late Thirties. They evince a high degree of technical bravura that recalls the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, and like the older master, lapse into an enviable problem: an excess of facility that tends to preclude real depth of feeling. They also show that Wyeth had little use for the cheery scenes he was depicting at the time, such as the one in The Apple Tree (1937), with its beach of bright raw paper, ultramarine shadows, and clever flicks of the brush to make foliage. This pleasant, assured painting is better than what many artists could ever manage, but Wyeth wanted to reach deeper.
By the middle to late Forties, his palette had darkened, and a greater emphasis on detail lent needed rigor to his work. His 1947 Spool Bed comes from this series, depicting a shadowy interior with broad, bold brush strokes that recall the artist's fondness for the work of Franz Kline. With its bands of black and rectilinear areas of red and blue, it wouldn't look out of place next to a mature Mondrian. Its formal strength aside, Wyeth loaded the room with eerie psychology.
Wyeth is also known for his work in egg tempera, in which the artist mixes dry pigments with egg yolk to form a satiny, semi-opaque paint. It is a slow medium, though on this point the museum errs. A label in the exhibition states, "With tempera, each layer must be allowed to dry before continuing, making it a painstaking and lengthy process that achieves a subdued effect." During my visit, a docent worsened this statement by saying that a day of drying had to pass before the application of new layers. This is quite incorrect. (Note to said docent: The medium has nothing to do with batter-fried Japanese cuisine; please stress the first syllable.) Tempera dries in seconds. But because it dries so quickly, you can't blend it; instead you must create gradations of tone by applying incremental, tiny strokes of color, all while manufacturing the paint on the fly.
This makes the achievement of Hoffman's Slough (1947), painted when the artist was just 30 years old, all the more striking. A dark field of dry grass cut through with white slices of puddles, it looks as if a Brueghel landscape had been depopulated but not deprived of its discomforting emotions. Reds glow through the passages of shadowed land, with only a tiny house in the distance offering hospitality. At nearly five feet wide, this is a huge tempera work, and its graphic power holds up at a distance even with all its minuscule and lovingly rendered details. A tempera self-portrait from a few years earlier shows Wyeth out in the field with a sketchbook under his arm and his jacket zipped up, his grim expression implying kinship with a silhouetted hawk in the background -- fellow hunters in a chilly landscape.
Another luminous tempera of model Siri Erickson has her posed nude and seated against a rust-colored background. Her profile recalls the idealized figures of Piero della Francesca, a link not lessened by a yellow Labrador retriever that sits on the floor at her side. Around the time of this work, 1978, Wyeth began to amplify the unreality or painterly contrivance in his images, though not in all of them. He continued to produce acutely observed portraits with great presence and unstinting probity, such as Blue-Eyed Susan (1992), a ringer of a watercolor in which a disheveled model smiles past the viewer as her tattered sweatshirt reveals a bit of her breast. The image manages to be simultaneously erotic and tough-minded.
But in Coming Ashore (1991), a nude up to her shoulders in water is depicted with pictorial elements that one could find in a Botticelli. Her body looks schematic by Wyeth standards, and the waves, while realistic, convey more an idea about water than its actual appearance. This sublimation of reality into the fantastic, distortion-filled world of painting makes him a stylistic contemporary of painters like Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, although he is superior to them by orders of magnitude. After going his own way for so long, Wyeth and the rest of art history have crossed paths again.