(Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009)
"As Andrew Wyeth became as much a celebrity as Henry Fonda (who admires and imitates his work), his reputation as an artist declined to the point where writing about him was an eccentricity requiring explanation. For most of us, his stardom has cannibalized his art to a degree unprecedented by any other artist with pretensions to seriousness. Informed opinion, when it thinks about the matter at all, has removed his art from its genteel inheritance of Eakins and Homer, and relegated it to the company of such an amiable mythmonger as Norman Rockwell.
"Not all this is due to disenchantment with the art itself. Wyeth's prices have been engineered to extraordinary heights. Reproductions have saturated our tolerance but not the market. Every aspect of his life has been endlessly celebrated and whatever he has to say has been written down and turned into best sellers. Perhaps this is nothing more than the media testing his commercial viability, as they do with every successful artist. That viability depends on what public expectations the artist can confirm.
"Wyeth's success, within which he apparently resides easily enough, arouses in the "genuine" artist a contempt that is obligatory if he is to maintain his intellectual respectability. The artist-hero is expected to be so troubled by his success that he reinforces his myth by rejecting it-thus raging, as it were, against the bars in that zoo to which American society generally relegates its cultural activities. Success cuts off careers in America for a very sharp reason. It makes the artist part of what he has based his art on rejecting: the values of the majority and the commercial engines supporting them. The divided mind and the aborted career usually have been attributed to the crassness of American society or some such easily apprehended generality. More acutely felt by the successful artist or writer, however, may be the closing of the ranks among his colleagues, and an exclusion, prompted by envy and intolerance, that amounts almost to an expulsion. While some American writers have exhibited an appetite for the sillier aspects of superstardom, or have been ill-equipped to deflect it, we have underestimated the attrition caused, not just by the public, but by colleagues. To succeed in America may demand more toughness of spirit than to fail. Few manage to have careers both successful and long.
"If Wyeth is an industry, who are the consumers? In those precincts where the products of the Picasso industry are de rigueur, Wyeth incunabula are something of a social liability. Those who share Wyeth share values we can identify with some confidence. For the members of this community-it is nothing less-the concept of "nature" is still a living force. Admiring stability and order, they are suspicious of the new, distrusting unorthodoxy but not eccentricity. Subscribing to a belief in human goodness, they can be dangerous when that belief is threatened. Along with nature, religion and morality are real forces in their lives, and a great deal of their energy is devoted to sustaining all three as values which should monitor the evolution of the social order. They maintain a firm belief in the future, and this optimism is as powerful a force in conserving their traditions as is the past. Evil tends to be rationalized as a failure to live by the letter of these beliefs, and so reinforces them. They are not unlike Wyeth himself.
"While the gap between the avant-garde and the public has accustomed us to amusing kinds of leap-frog and acculturation by myth, no such gap exists between Wyeth and his audience. Though his community's values appear to many to be, like Wyeth's visual conventions, obsolete, we must look for the energy sustaining an "obsolescence" that is taking such a long time to go away. The source of this energy is in the powerful resistance to change, in the fierce conservation of the values that give meaning to existence. In its stability Wyeth's audience could be called, no matter how sophisticated its members, primitive. It shares superstitions, beliefs, icons, a circumscribed worldview, and ritualized modes of releasing violence. It is in fact a primitive community within, or side by side with, a progressive-destructive one, and appropriately it is served by an artist who, no matter how sophisticated his means, is primitive in his thinking. Wyeth's communication with this audience is so instantaneous that it makes the McLuhanesque idea of viaticum via media seem a little forced.
"Wyeth's art, then, functions socially in a way that both avant-garde art and Russian realism might envy. At the Wyeth retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1968, one of the sights was not the art, but the audience entering the museum with the same settled expectancy as crowds about to view Lenin's tomb. Watching the members of that audience communicate with the pictures and with each other, it was obvious they were rehearsing the values by which their lives were lived. In this context, the individual works of art became icons for a way of life. Insofar as they assemble the parables of the faith, Wyeth books assume a certain sanctified character in the homes of this audience. At the root of this is a nineteenth-century idea of nature as a moral force, identified with nationalism, and providing a Holy Book, as Barbara Novak has called it, for meditation and interpretation. This ideology, implicit rather than explicit in Wyeth's art, is what provokes such hostility from the aesthetically sophisticated audience, in exactly the same way his audience responds to avant-gardism.
"So Wyeth communicates with his audience, numbered in millions, with an ease and fluency that amounts to a kind of genius. Sharing their beliefs, he is able to inflect them endlessly by giving the audience, like Billy Graham, a sense of community and individuality, stimulating a buried imaginative life while leaving the surface undisturbed. By fulfilling a communal need while being faithful to his own interests (in a context of shared beliefs), Wyeth's voice and myth echo each other in a way unknown in modernism. Truth to experience is the audience's criterion, checked by reference to nature, and if the experience itself is banal it remains undisturbed by the art. What the audience sees is not process or formal deftness, but an image, all at once. In this sense, modernism's increasing narcissism with respect to its own means measures the break-up of a community and the rising arc of the artist's alienation.
"Wyeth and his stable community, sophisticated primitives sharing their transcendental populism, arouse prejudices rooted in a conflict underlying more obvious skirmishes-the conflict between two ways of life, the rural and the urban. Modernist art is urban art and it has incorporated the pastoral idea in various disguises, often hiding in its abstract facade a nostalgia for landscape. In modernism the landscape has been painted by urban creatures knowing nothing about it or the rural life. Impressionist landscapes are as neutral as Cubism's guitars. Nature becomes a perceptual laboratory in which light and color disengage themselves from representation to become the chief actors. The landscape, even Expressionist landscape into which violent emotion is projected - is drained of its violence. The Darwinian struggle is transferred from the landscape to the city, and this transposal of the rural mythology is an unexplored part of the urban mind. That mind, however, while it accepts the urban view of the landscape (from Fairfield Porter's sunny idealizations to Hopper's bald realism), will not accept the rural view-nor is it equipped to read it, or perceive in it anything more than clichés identified with forms of nationalism troubling to the liberal spirit.
"Thus Wyeth, the only genuine rural artist of the slightest consequence, is attacked with a violence far beyond the usual etiquette of critical disagreement. The hatred of Wyeth in informed circles is matched only by his audience's identification of abstraction with communism. For this reason we can couple two artists who epitomize urban and rural mythologies - Warhol and Wyeth. The two Andys, though separated by a Grand Canyon of irony, traffic in great images rather than paintings, Both tell more about the urban and rural milieus than any other American artists. Both arouse a violent prejudice aborting them out of art history into social history and legend. Both, totally obtuse, share mirror-image varieties of innocence: Wyeth is a sophisticated primitive; Warhol, like Jarry, a primitive sophisticate.
"Wyeth has inherited in his oblivious way a nineteenth-century apparatus that one need not trace further than Constable in painting, Coleridge in literature, transcendentalism in philosophy, and the einfühlung of Theodor Lipps in aesthetics. Nature attitudes, of course, have become a shrunken repertory of clichés. Wyeth uses them as if he had never heard they were clichés, and thus - in a way different from, but almost as effective as, ironic quotation - he forces us to acknowledge the truth they inter. Very offensive to modernist sensibilities, this.
"Modernist art is placeless - a state of mind knowing no borders, communicating with ease through formalist Esperanto. Rural art is inseparable from place, and there is pathos as well as country cunning in Wyeth's devotion to two small reservations, Chadds Ford in Pennsylvania and Cushing in Maine. These reservations (surrounded by neon and superhighways) have an air of preservation that makes nature artificial, and Wyeth exists in a milieu as sealed in its way as a Cornell box. He is primitive and ideographic in a way unacceptable to those who dote on Grandma Moses; and at the same time a provincial-that is, one baffled by the idea of progress. Thus his art resists a development it appears sometimes to seek. The luxury of "periods" is denied it. This lack of progress, however, is a way of coping with the outside-urban-world that would destroy his raison d'étre. Similarly, his rigid curatorship of the two areas that authenticate his work, and his fear of moving outside them. When the subject of realist art disappears, it becomes less understandable than the most rigorous abstraction.
"To judge Wyeth, then, in terms of progress, change, invention, self-consciousness, is to look for an artist who isn't there. "The convictions to which he clings with naYve integrity keep him from engaging with the variousness of life, and his art tends to become a vehicle for rehearsing settled values. His skepticism shares in the qualities of village faith; his belief as to the unavoidability of loss becomes a simplistic inversion of Victorian optimism. The corroding ironies, the scathing assaults on untested convictions, the playfulness and deviousness of mind we have come to expect in modern art - these are not here at all-not here at all." This is Irving Howe on Thomas Hardy, with "art" substituted twice for "poetry," and the comparison is valuable. Wyeth and Hardy both know country life. They match up in rural attitudes and in their awareness of a rural world under stress from outside.
"They have most in common in matters of description, especially when Hardy's reports have the tang of rural observation: "At the door, the wood-hooped pails, sodden and bleached by infinite scrubbage, hung like hats on a stand upon the forked and peeled limb of the oak fixed there for that purpose ... the large leaved rhubarb and cabbage plants slept too, their broad, limp surfaces hanging in the sun like half-closed umbrellas." Both emphasize age, textures, and clear focus. Like Hardy, Wyeth tinkers with animistic associations to bring home a description. In describing landscape, both move from close-up to distance abruptly-and back. Traces of human and animal passage (roads, cart-tracks) frequently populate bare landscapes; and both return to the country problem of recognizing the familiar disguised by light or distance. A comparison between the famous description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native and Wyeth's Hoffman's Slough exactly underlines their similarities and differences. The feeling, the atmosphere, is remarkably similar, but Wyeth refuses the implications of total desolation by safely sticking a house, like a humanistic thumbtack, into the distance. The pungency of Hardy is inaccessible to Wyeth's comparatively lightweight adventures, but both are extremely sharp observers of rural characters. And under his surface optimism and sentiment, Wyeth's vision is not always settling. As Mark Rothko said: "Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness." "But," he added, "he is not whole as Hopper is whole."
"Indeed, if one can accustom oneself to Wyeth's sentiment as a form of surface politeness, one can learn to read the sizable brutalities it hides: the casual insertion of deathly signs, the horror as well as the humor in country quirkiness, the panic in empty spaces that point attention to a kind of listening. One becomes sensitized to the scenarios behind open doors, cupboards, windows, simple objects. A pair of boots outside the door: Is he in or out? Has he been hunting? Any sign of dead game? No smoke from the chimney. Has he gone out again? Where's the dog? That silence. Hope nothing's wrong. Couldn't be. I'll leave a note. Is the door open?
"This kind of deductive fugue is a language in which country people are perfectly versed. The voice in their ears is their own. They are accustomed to reading people, objects, sky, and above all strangers, who do not realize that indifferent eyes conceal a hubbub of observation and conjecture, assisted by a silence that prompts the uneasy visitor to reveal more than his speech betrays. This is a proto-literary form that presents itself visually-and a closed book to urbanites. How closed is known to anyone who has tried to open it to city eyes. All the events in the country are flashes. The glimpse of red is missed; even when seen it is not recognized as a fox. Eventually the subliminal activities that he cannot see provoke in the inexperienced observer the idea that he is being watched, and this slight threat may sharpen his sight.
"What is most true about Wyeth's art is its fidelity to this way of looking, to this internal stream of deductive language country people listen to as they move around. (Indeed, Wyeth's art is a kind of record of that movement. Like country life it is full of the rhythms of walking, of perspectives changing slowly with approach and withdrawal, of sudden details switched into distance with a glance.) Unlike any of the other artists in this book, in whom the idea of the voice is a significant convention, this rural voice in Wyeth's work is closest to an actual voice, a mode of reading the landscape to oneself from the point of view of a dweller in it. Intimately connected to a way of life, this voice, when deprived of its referent, drops out of the picture, leaving clich6 behind. Thus Wyeth's audience is made up of city dwellers who like the clichés, and country dwellers who read his pictures as they read nature and find them true.
"So if we speak of Wyeth's voice, it is not just the artist's personal discourse, but a kind of dialogue with objects and nature which his rural audience overhears and recognizes perfectly. At this point one begins to doubt if Wyeth is painting pictures, and in a way it hardly matters. For this voice is what makes Wyeth the only genuine rural artist in contemporary art; indeed, in the history of art there are very few. Ludicrous though it sounds, the only time one finds oneself listening to this kind of voice is on certain occasions when the Gothic imagination is clarified by Renaissance observation with Brueghel, for instance. Wyeth's innumerable followers, many of them infinitely more skilled than he, present the simulacrum of nature without the voice clichés lovingly reinterred. Wyeth thus leads an army of dead men bent on repealing modernism,and restoring moral health through the trinity of nature, nationalism, and godliness. Wyeth, who shares their political views, is an outsider aligned on the right against the modernist conspiracy.
"Rothko's phrase, "the pursuit of strangeness," catches the key element in Wyeth's voice, the discourse between the observer and a situation that is a form of expectation. In the country such expectation encourages intense projections. Each extended sense monitors itself and the others. Seeing becomes a kind of listening. A smell can become a kind of hearing. "I am sensible of a certain doubleness," wrote Thoreau, "by which I stand as remote from myself as from another." Overactive in that country silence, one's senses crawl over and inhabit everything. Strings of association prompt hypotheses, and hypotheses test strings of associations. Identity is somehow translated into the landscape. One becomes all eyes and ears. Such animal-like empathy is also encouraged by what Wyeth chooses to paint: carefully assembled sounding boards for sensations both familiar and unfamiliar, or rather unfamiliar in a very familiar way. The tracks and traces cue the voice in the work, exciting those crackles and rustlings that, for anyone raised in the country, forcefully inhabit Wyeth's pictures, and indeed often stimulate him to paint them.
"All this is a rehearsal, in another arena, of Jasper Johns' art, silly though it sounds at first, since Wyeth's non-kosher status disqualifies him from such comparisons. But Wyeth inhabits his art and his landscape in a comparable way to Johns' tenancy of sixties art. And Wyeth engages the rural community in a way not dissimilar to Johns' engagement of the modernist community. Each questions and watches his own senses, Wyeth in a natural context, Johns in an aesthetic one. Both put the feedback from other senses to work, for Wyeth's traces are not dissimilar to Johns' handprints, scrapings, and echoes of process. Each games with his identity to hide his lack of one. Wyeth's impersonations are often actual as he roams his reservations to find the situation that will respond to his disguise and so remove it. Johns roams the modernist landscape rehearsing its genres of process. Wyeth eventually disappears into the silence of old-fashioned transcendentalism, Johns into the silence of modernist exile. And both are intimate artists who love objects equally well. Despite Johns' formidable sophistication, there is something almost juvenile in his choice of images: maps, drawers, flags, rulers. Formalism has blinded us to the fact that they are often schoolboy souvenirs. Indeed, Johns used modernist process to legitimize his love for them, to make them viable as subject matter.
"Objects report on their experiences by showing wear and tear. Wyeth's objects clearly report on country usage, anthropomorphosed by repeated involvement in intimate living habits. Infused with the animism unavoidable from contact with nature, objects develop a physiognomy. When deprived of usage, such objects are defenseless against nostalgia (savoring the past all at once and without effort) and are, except for the most sophisticated kind of quotation (Joseph Cornell), artistically unusable.
"For the textures of usage, Johns substitutes the textures of process - modernism's short-term version of history - and thus makes them available for aesthetic instead of casual usage. In their narrow oscillation between objecthood and process, Johns brings his works to a troubling half-life where they are described by self-referential systems establishing an uneasy sense of place. Of course, no such sophistication ever touches Wyeth's depicted objects; they are firmly set in place in the rural ethos which assigns to objects hierarchies and categories perfectly understood by the rural mind.
"Such a comparison points up the difference between an art in contact with and shared by a society, and art that is not. Wyeth, though not without self-consciousness, is without irony, while Johns' process is mediated through ironies necessary to bring his work into its fragile existence. The question arises whether irony is not a sign of weakness in art, the habit that consumed modernism while providing it with its last energies. (Johns seems to be conscious of this; since the mid-sixties his art has attempted to dispense with irony, thus encountering another set of difficulties.)
"However, Wyeth's reportage on textures and appearances, while part of country language, betrays his inability to grasp things though he describes them well. For instance, the beech tree in Corner of the Woods is simply a textured curtain behind the figure, remarkably similar to some American primitive paintings. It has no solidity at all. The great boulder in Far from Needham has no solidity either, but he has filled in on every dotted line the record of the object's history. He is the object's genealogist instead of its possessor. Though crawling with its past, it is not physically present. The ectoplasmic results can be read as the primitive's conceptual frustration of the provincial's effort to perceive solidity, a conflict that gives at least an interesting tension to such works. The object is situated halfway between solid existence and an ideograph, though that halfway state is disguised in highly sophisticated techniques, and this perilous condition can have a case made for it in, inevitably, literary terms. One is reminded of Rilke in Les Cahiers: ". . . there is almost no space here; and you feel almost calm at the thought that it is impossible for anything very large to hold in this narrowness." More immediately, one thinks of Emerson's "spirit is matter reduced to an extreme thinness." Emerson, of course, is very obliging where Wyeth is concerned."
- From "The Voice and the Myth: American Masters", by Brian O'Doherty