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Andrew Wyeth, 91: A 19th-Century Artist in a 20th-Century World

Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World,” 1948, Museum of Modern Art

Many serious art historians have long admired the work of Andrew Wyeth, who died today at his home in Chadds Ford, PA. Most of them are experts in traditional, pre-20th century American art. He’s anathema, I now think unfairly, to contemporary art enthusiasts, because his art is so stubbornly traditional, if not reactionary. It can be dour, obsessive, overly sentimental and irritatingly pretentious in insisting on poetic meaning for the prosaic.

But at its best, it can also be meticulously crafted and movingly evocative. There’s a reason why, like it or not, the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection galleries must always display “Christina’s World.” As MoMA’s label for the painting tells us: “In this style of painting, known as magic realism, everyday scenes are imbued with poetic mystery.”

The catalogue for the sprawling 2005 retrospective, “Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic” (which I saw at the High Museum in Atlanta before it traveled to the Philadelphia Museum) included essays by such distinguished art historians as John Wilmerding, then professor of American art at Princeton; Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum, and Christopher Crosman, then director of the Farnsworth Art Museum, ME (now chief curator at the planned Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR).

That show caused me to rethink my reflexive disdain for an artist who, for me, is at his best with spare interiors, brilliantly painted, that evoke an aching loneliness and wistfulness. As Ken Johnson wrote in his NY Times review: “Going through this exhibition, you would have to be a pretty determined
Wyeth opponent to resist his magic realism and his cannily economical
ways of composing scenes and telling stories.”

My previously negative opinion of Wyeth’s work had been cemented by the infamous, over-hyped show, “Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons,” 1976, at the Metropolitan Museum, organized by the director himself, Thomas Hoving, whose canonizing of Wyeth’s canon seemed way out of proportion to the merits of the work on display. Of that show, NY Times critic John Russell said: “It is really rather odd that a nation which rightly prides itself on its buoyancy of spirit should identify itself so firmly with an artist whose specialty is the study of wounded or inarticulate natures in an unforgiving landscape.”

Unable to get beyond the popular appreciation of Wyeth’s work for the wrong reasons, many critics can’t admire it for the right reasons. He was an old master in a modern age.

an ArtsJournal blog