For the last fifty years, I have visited Christina’s World (1948), by Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009), at the Museum of Modern Art. It is not one of the greatest paintings at MoMA, certainly not superior in aesthetic quality to several European modernist paintings in the collection. But it is one of the great American paintings, and possibly the most famous. Not all critics agree, even to this day. However, there has been a reevaluation of Wyeth’s oeuvre since his death in 2009. John Russell, the former senior art critic of The New York Times, observed: “It is rather odd that a nation which rightly prides itself on its buoyancy of spirit should identity itself so firmly with an artist whose specialty is the study of wounded or inarticulate natures in an unforgiving landscape.”1 Even for an Englishman, Mr. Russell seems oblivious to the existential, alienated, film-noir spirit that dominated American culture during the 1940s and 1950s. Temperamentally, Wyeth was a contemporary of Edward Hopper, the painter of Nighthawks (1942).
A new exhibition of Wyeth’s work (May 4–November 30, 2014) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gives the public and critics another opportunity to study and evaluate this artist. “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” is a highly unusual show, full of insights into his working methods. Many critics, curators and historians still think that Wyeth was out of synch with twentieth-century art. The consensus has been that he did not understand abstract art. His reputation suffered, as did that of another American artist, Norman Rockwell. When art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked to name the most overrated and underrated artist of the twentieth century, he nominated Andrew Wyeth for both. On the other hand, historian Paul Johnson described Wyeth in his book Art: A New History as the only twentieth-century narrative genius. The National Gallery exhibition is cleverly curated, and recalls the remarkably successful promotion of Wyeth’s Helga series of portraits exhibited there in 1987, which netted the artist 45 million dollars when the group was sold to a Japanese consortium. “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” addresses this master’s statement that he is truly a modern artist and understands abstraction.
During sixty years of painting, Wyeth produced more than 300 works on the theme of “open windows.” This exhibit includes sixty watercolors, temperas and drawings. Spare and elegant, these paintings and preparatory sketches are free of the narrative element associated with the artist’s better known figurative compositions. However, in the beginning, as a precocious teenager under the strict tutoring of his father, N.C. Wyeth, the noted illustrator of classic novels, Andrew did focus on the narrative figure. His father wanted his youngest son to pursue the craft of illustration. One of Andrew’s early works was triggered by a family tragedy: his father’s car was crushed by a locomotive when it stalled on the railroad tracks just below the Kuerner house, a neighbor of the Wyeths in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Wyeth would continue to paint the house of the Kuerners, whom he knew very well, for the rest of his life.
Andrew Wyeth had his first exhibition at age fifteen, but his first mature work to attract significant attention was Winter (1946). The painting shows a young boy running down a steep hill alongside the faint tire tracks of an automobile imprinted in the short grass. Wyeth always singled out his father’s death as the emotional keystone of his art. He preferred to be alone, and the interiors and deep recesses of the few farmhouses near his home were the subject of many of his paintings. The catalogue contains several wonderful photographs of Wyeth sitting or reclining in dark spaces within haystrewn lofts, with their thick walls and small windows, the artist’s face half buried in shadows.
One of his closest friends, later, was Edward Hopper, who shared Wyeth’s sense of isolation. Both men preferred painting empty rooms or rustic spaces. Hopper preferred barren rooms in large cities, illuminated by a naked electric bulb; Wyeth, the indirect, fading light of dusk over barren farmland. The exhibition catalogue, by Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock, offers penetrating insights into Wyeth’s motivations and secrets. The curators address issues that have confused other scholars, or simply been ignored, including the admiration Wyeth felt for Hopper. Both were accused of being “illustrators”—impervious to the influence and language of modernism. In both instances, this was simply not the case. Anderson and Brock take great pains to demonstrate how Wyeth and Hopper incorporated modernism into their compositions, often more successfully than the leading abstractionists of their time. Wyeth frankly acknowledged that Hopper was the better painter. The authors examine the aesthetic quality that both artists display, aesthetics being the foundation upon which modernism was built. They do not spend much time on the personal details that weigh down many biographies.
Windows fascinated both artists. Wyeth explained that it was his desire to remove as much of the artist’s presence as possible from the composition. Brushstrokes, overt narrative, unusual forms and objects draw attention to the artist’s technique, while looking through a glass or a window subtly deconstructs our visual relationship with the subject. There is something coolly objective, almost coldly rational, about the works of both of these great artists. For one thing, sentimentality rarely appears in their landscapes or portraits. The light source in Hopper’s city interiors often has a fierce, searing quality, similar to the effects in films directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Wyeth’s darkness is less foreboding. Anderson suggests that Wyeth uses windows to give shape, narratively and aesthetically, to his detached view of the world. The right angle shape of the windows creates a formal structure within the loose brushwork of his preliminary sketches.
It is surprising to visit Chadds Ford, where the artist spent much of his life: the landscape is far more hospitable than it appears in Wyeth’s paintings. One strategy he used was to place a window as an interpreter between himself and the subject. Sometimes only a glassless hole in a barn wall added to the sense of cold sternness. He often described his relationship with his father as that of a stern teacher and his pupil. “He was tough on me,” Wyeth remarked, “but I think it was right.”2 Wyeth’s works share little with the storytelling pictures of Rockwell, who, indeed, was a narrative illustrator of great warmth. Christina’s World, Wyeth’s most famous painting, depicts, without pity, Christina Olson crawling on her hands across the lowgrass field toward her family’s house. It was immediately bought by the Museum of Modern Art and exhibited the following year, despite the youth of the artist and how “conservative” it seemed in comparison to the rest of the collection.
The artist started exploring the theme of the current exhibition, open windows, the same year he painted Christina, during another visit to the Olson house. He was sitting near a window on the top floor. The stifling heat drew Wyeth to open that window and allow a breeze to billow the sheer, lacy curtains into the room. Startled by the embrace of the curtain, he returned again and again to that room, waiting for the experience to repeat itself, while he made rapid sketches of the billowing fabric. Wyeth switched to watercolors to capture that delicate movement of the airborne lace. For the right-angle structure of the window frame, he employed a pencil and a straightedge ruler. His plan was to develop the details into a final composition. Anderson’s analysis of Wyeth’s preparatory sketches is very astute. She has the eye of an artist as she describes his working process:
The initial sketches reveal a composition vertical with incoming light reflected on the floor of the room. For the final painting, Wyeth effectively cut his original composition in half, eliminating all references to elements below the window sill. The orientation became horizontal, echoing the shape of the open space beneath the raised window. With geometric precision, Wyeth placed the grid of the window, window frame, and shade between the interior space occupied by the viewer (and the curtains) and the exterior landscape. The surface “realism” of Wind from the Sea masks the reductive process by which Wyeth ruthlessly pared away pictorial elements evident in preparative studies…. He [Wyeth] described the process as “distillation,” “boiling down,” “getting to the bone.”3
Although Wyeth’s purpose was quite different from that of members of the so-called New York School of Abstract Expressionism, the process is similar. The watercolor sketches of Wind from the Sea (1947) remind me of Franz Kline’s inkwashes using hundreds of pages from several telephone books. There is a big difference between the purpose of Kline’s sketches and Wyeth’s, of course: Kline is not sketching or painting specific spaces (in other words, they are Platonic); Wyeth is delineating spaces and partitions that indicate a definite purpose (Aristotelian). To carry this one step further, Kline’s abstract ink or paint drawings could be developed into real spaces, relating to landscape or structures. Wyeth’s sketches in the exhibit, as abstract as they are, could be left alone, with no further development, and appear as finished works. At whatever step in the process the artist stops working, it could be deemed “finished.” Thus, the laws of aesthetics are employed, whether applied to abstraction or realism. Thus, too, the simple colorfield paintings of Malevich or Rothko relate to sunlit walls by Wyeth. It depends on the objective that the artist is seeking. Similar comparisons can made between the work of Isamu Noguchi and Michelangelo.
One important narrative element in Wyeth’s final painting has been overlooked. Across the horizontal portion of the field can be seen tire tracks that match those of his father’s car in Winter (1946), creasing the grass from one side of the window frame to the other.
This is only a conjecture, but I sense a sharp intelligence working behind the secretive life of the Wyeths. Throughout their long married life, Betsy, his wife, kept all records of Andrew’s work, accounts and business activities, paid all bills and kept a tight grip on reproductions of her husband’s work. In 1970, she introduced Wyeth to Helga Testorf, who was working as a nurse for Wyeth’s terminally ill neighbor Karl Kuerner. By 1971, Helga was secretly posing for Wyeth. He often painted her in the nude, usually at nighttime or in the evening. Several times he painted her nude in the bright sunlight. (Hopper had painted similar scenes.) By the early 1980s, several influential and wealthy collectors were invited to see Wyeth’s Helga paintings and sketches, which by then numbered some 250. The director of the National Gallery, J. Carter Brown, was in on the secret. Supposedly, Betsy knew nothing. In 1986, a large exhibition opened at the National Gallery, entitled the “Helga Paintings,” which included many nudes. The news magazines reproduced those paintings they thought not too offensive, and a good deal of copy was generated about the supposed love affair between the young woman and the old man. Wyeth was suddenly world famous. Some top critics and historians, such as John Wilmerding, waxed poetic over the series. A Japanese consortium bought the entire collection for 45 million dollars, which again made news around the world. When one reads accounts of the transactions, the publicity campaign and the visiting notables, one gradually becomes aware of a shadowy figure moving in the background, yet Betsy always denied any knowledge of the “affair.” In any case, justice was served. The Wyeths had gotten even with all the know-nothings who had disparaged his work. Ironically, he had accomplished exactly what Andy Warhol—the favorite artist of the Met’s contemporary art curator, who had rejected a Wyeth exhibition—had.
Wyeth died in 2009, as preparations were being made for the beautiful exhibition now at the National Gallery, which proves that Wyeth understood abstraction well enough to have had a career as a modernist. Instead, he painted from his soul and gave the people what they really yearned for.
- Nancy K. Anderson, “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2014), p. 15.
Ibid., p. 16.