Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Andrew Wyeth

All week I have wanted to say something about Andrew Wyeth.

I have read blog posts, magazine and newspaper articles, reviews, catalog entries, and so on since it was announced that he was dead at 91 years old.

His images are part of the collective unconscious I think....even the most unaware know about that painting of the crippled girl in the field, even if they don't know the name of the artist or the painting. Sadly the only thing many remember about him is the Helga series of paintings; the aura of the eccentric painter holed up with his naked blonde beauty is nirvana-land to many who can fantasize plenty about such a life of luxury.

I have always adored Andrew Wyeth's work. I confess to a fascination with the entire Wyeth clan, from NC to Jamie and the work of Henriette and Peter Hurd, as well some paintings I have seen by Carolyn (I think that is the correct spelling of her name), who spent much of her life in mental health facilities. I recall a particular painting by Carolyn that I could not get out of my mind for months after I saw it.

My great-great aunt, Ellen Wetherald Ahrens, was part of the group of artist/illustrators who studied with Howard Pyle and she knew NC Wyeth, according to unsubstantiated stories told to me as a child by my grandmother and mother. The name Wyeth was known to me through the magnificent illustrations in countless books that peppered my youth. A trip to the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is like a reunion with old friends; an incredible collection of Wyeth paintings, illustrations, drawings, are on display, some resonating familiarity through the stories I vaguely remember, but the images are embedded in my brain cells for my lifetime.

And it is the same for all of the Wyeth paintings and illustrations; etched on my brain cells as icons that represent the best of the best in painting and illustration. These paintings are technically immaculate and remarkably conceived; a throwback to the 19th century realists and a throwforward to the most sophisticated contemporary visionaries.

An article many years ago in American Artist Magazine inspired me to try to use egg tempera. I started out by using my watercolors in the manner described in the article, making small cross-hatched strokes, over and over until the white was gone and the pigment was layered and layered, something that is not typical of watercolors. After many years of trying to make watercolors behave I finally arrived at a technique that worked. I had Andrew Wyeth to thank for that and finally I took the plunge into raw pigment and egg yolks, and every time I crack an egg I think of him.

The articles about him this week all mention his exclusion by many museum directors, critics and other wheelers and dealers of the art world, the part of the art world that I find totally objectionable. To say that Andrew Wyeth was trite and sentimental as an artist says much more about the critic than the artist. His major paintings represent the quintessential artform; transcendent and beautiful, evocative, mysterious, and somewhat disturbing....they get into you and don't leave.

But this week I have thought more of Betsy Wyeth than I did of Andrew. He was a lucky man, a lucky artist. At the age of 20 Andrew Wyeth had a show at McBeth's Gallery in New York City and sold out. You and I could not have been so lucky. We did not have a father like NC Wyeth. Nor are we lucky enough to have a Betsy running our lives, keeping he public at bay, while dealing with the wheeler/dealers and the collectors and auction houses. No, we have to do all the marketing and PR ourselves. I think of Betsy Wyeth when I feel sorry for myself, and long for a Betsy who could do all the nasty art stuff for me, protect and serve my muse and give me the biggest gift of all, privacy and time. Lucky Andrew! She said she didn't pry into his life, but run it she did!

One of his paintings that lingers in my memory banks was painted from the top of a lighthouse. I have not looked at the painting recently and so it is hazy, but the image is a powerful one for me, as it is the essence of simplicity, direct, and beautifully composed, and technically nearly perfect, as most of his paintings are. I would love to know the details of his pigments, his working methods, and would prefer to know about his favorite brushes rather than his favorite models. That lighthouse painting had a luminosity that was glowed from within. So many iconic images, blowing gauzy curtains, spare winter landscapes, empty rooms and amazing portraits of people that are everyone's neighbors....Andrew Wyeth is my friend and mentor, although he doesn't know me, I know him, and my life and my art are enriched by the amazing art that he produced over his 91 years.