For Wyeth, Both Praise and Doubt
By LARRY ROHTER
January 16, 2009
In death, as in life, the painter Andrew Wyeth continues to provoke the most diverse of reactions.
Many in the art world rushed to praise Wyeth, who died on Friday at 91, as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. But as ever, plenty of others lumped him with Norman Rockwell as a mere illustrator, and dismissed his most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” as a “mandatory dorm room poster.”
Kathleen A. Foster, the senior curator of American art and director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, “There is no question that there has been a polarization of opinion” about Wyeth and his work. “He was a kind of virtuoso whose work was intensely modern, with an enormous emotional resonance,” she said. But, she added, there are still people who think of his work as “just corny Americana.”
“Christina’s World,” one of the mainstays of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art, is as familiar and as endlessly reproduced — and parodied — as Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” But Wyeth’s best paintings, his admirers say, have a bleak and somber streak that gives them unusual depth for work so familiar and so popular.
The national outpouring of mourning for Mr. Wyeth on Friday focused mainly on “Christina’s World” and other landscapes he painted while shuttling between his homes in Chadds Ford, Pa., where he was born, and Maine. Skeptics like Rob Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art, however, raised doubts about his choice of subject matter while praising Mr. Wyeth as a technician.
“Wyeth was an anti-modern painter,” Mr. Storr said. “He did paintings that never changed, in a style that never changed. His image is one of stasis in a world that changed dramatically around him, and for my money that is a conservative position. It is in many ways a futile exercise, but he did it with great energy and conviction.”
In the 1940s, early in his career, Wyeth, a son of the noted illustrator N. C. Wyeth, was thought of as something of a radical and even a surrealist. But a decade later, after the emergence of Jackson Pollock and other abstractionists, his stock fell sharply among critics, and he was deemed old-fashioned, even if his paintings continued to sell and his admirers included Winston Churchill.
“Undoubtedly the criticism of his work has a lot to do with the politics of the art world and the demand by critics and many artists themselves that only contemporary abstraction be recognized as a viable language for the postwar era,” said Elizabeth Broun, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The cadre of critics who promoted that made a point of discrediting everything else and deliberately devaluing other artists’ work.”
Wyeth greatly admired and was sometimes compared to Edward Hopper, another American realist, although usually in a negative way. As the painter Mark Rothko once put it, “Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness, but he is not whole, as Hopper is whole.”
Those attitudes persisted even after the critical consensus around Modernism began to lose some of its force. In 1976 Thomas Hoving, then the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took charge of a Wyeth retrospective after Henry Geldzahler, the curator of the Met’s department of 20th Century Art, refused to be involved with the exhibition on the grounds that Wyeth “had nothing new to show us.”
But Wyeth was lucky enough to outlast many of his critics and to live long enough to see taste among critics and curators shift toward a more measured and balanced view of him and his work.
Popular taste, of course, had always remained with him, and the gulf between the two viewpoints became a symbol of a wider division over what constitutes quality in art and what museums should be displaying on their walls.
Part of the opprobrium against which Wyeth had to struggle may also have arisen from his status not just as an artist, but also as a celebrity with a very clearly defined image. In an era in which irony and detachment were embraced by artists like Andy Warhol, Wyeth and his paintings came in the popular mind to embody both traditional notions of patriotism and sincerity and the type of taciturn hardiness associated with his New England ancestors.
“In a way, Wyeth was not unlike Andy Warhol, in that very few others had that kind of popular appeal and name recognition,” said Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “In many aspects we can say it was the two Andys who were probably the most prominent figures in American art in the last century.”
The apogee of Wyeth’s celebrity, and the strongest criticisms of it, probably came in the late 1980s, at the time of the so-called “Helga paintings.” To many in the art world, the much publicized controversy over the apparent secrecy in which Wyeth painted portraits, including nudes, of a female neighbor, supposedly without telling his wife, who managed his business affairs, smacked of canny media exploitation
“The whole thing seemed a little orchestrated,” said Ms. Broun of the Smithsonian, on whose board Wyeth served for 18 years. “One can judge the Helga paintings as good, bad or indifferent, but for me, the sensational stories around that body of work had everything to do with creating a great sales opportunity. But of course artists were not the first to figure out that a good story creates excitement.”
Will Mr. Wyeth’s death put an end to the debate about the quality of his work? Mr. Storr of Yale said, “I think we will never get a settled opinion on him, and unlike Hopper, there will not be an agreed upon general status for him.” But Ms. Foster of the Philadelphia Museum disagreed.
“I think the debate is over, and the more distant we get from the hubbub, the less interesting it seems,” she said. “I think we are now all grown up enough to realize that there are many roads to modern art, and not just one channel.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 17, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.