When an artist’s career spans seven decades, the opportunity to view an anthology of their work is not to be missed. “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is a showcase of 110 paintings and drawings he created from the late 1930s until the year before his death in 2009. Curator Patricia Junker described the late painter as someone who was “devoted to the human figure as the most eloquent conveyor of our common humanity.”
The space where his work is showcased formerly housed the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Rather than being enveloped by the dazzling hallucinogenic vision of an artist obsessed with dots and pumpkins, visitors are now surrounded by a subdued space devoted to Wyeth’s work of unrelenting realism. His subjects were often people in his life, including his wife Betsy James and neighbor Christina Olson.
One of the first works visitors see is “Maga’s Daughter.” The painting shows Betsy wearing a hat she purchased from an antique store as she looks off to her right. The title is a nod to Betsy’s mother who was affectionately called Maga. Junker said for the first time the work is being shown to include the physical embodiment of Betsy’s mother. The linen liner around the painting was an heirloom of her mother’s and later embroidered by a friend.
Wyeth described the tempera on hardboard panel: “It’s more than a picture of a lovely looking woman. It’s blood rushing up. Portraits live or not on such fine lines! What makes this is that odd, flat Quaker hat and the wonderful teardrop ribbons and those flushed cheeks.”
Betsy was intertwined in his work in many ways. In addition to posing for him, she came up with titles for his works and served as critic as well as supporter.
The exhibit shows Wyeth’s progression as an artist from creating watercolors to staged portraits to his experimental works. Given the sheer number of pieces showcased, taking it all in at a languid pace is optimal. Junker spent several months researching Wyeth and working with the family curator to decide what to include in the show. Because Wyeth often reflected on his work, his own words assisted the process.
“There were huge notebooks,” Junker said. “It was really useful to go through them and see what he thought were his best paintings. So we learned a lot that way too.”
“Winter 1946” is one of his most well-known works included in the show. It depicts a farm near his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. A young man dressed in a coat and hat with earflaps is shown running down Kuerner’s Hill, which takes up most of the frame. The painting mirrors real life events. Wyeth’s father, painter and illustrator Newell Convers Wyeth (known as N.C.), died in 1945 when a train hit his car at the foot of the steep hill depicted in the painting. A boy named Allan Lynch was one of the first people on the scene of the fatal crash and guarded N.C.’s body from dogs. The following year Wyeth was walking past the farm near the location of his father’s death when he saw Lynch running down Kuerner’s Hill. Art historian Henry Adams says “the two squeezed into an old baby carriage and rolled down the hill in it together, laughing hysterically and crashing at the end. The experience became the basis for ‘Winter 1946.’” Wyeth would later tell journalist and biographer Richard Meryman, “The boy was me at a loss really.”
While father and son were artistic, their attitudes toward who was worthy of the brush stroke differed. According to art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, N.C. considered Black people to be “unsuitable for art, a servant class who should call him ‘Mr. Wyeth,’ who cleaned his house and mowed his lawns, who were colorful primitives.”
In the 1940s Andrew began painting residents from the small Black community near his hometown. In the accompanying catalogue produced by SAM Shaw wrote: “more than a dozen different African-Americans sat for the artist, providing him with brown-faced versions of the now-familiar weathered, introspective countenances he painted with the singular brand of expressive grace that made him one of the key American artists of the last century.”
“Day of the Fair,” “Adam” and “The Drifter” are all works depicting Black models. Completed in 1963 and 1964 respectively, they aren’t as widely recognized. In 2001, an exhibition of that branch of work toured the South.
A love of film also influenced Wyeth’s work. A video installation shows clips from the 1975 film “Metaphor.” In it Wyeth is having a conversation with director King Vidor about “The Big Parade,” a 1925 silent film on World War I. Wyeth watched it hundreds of times and talks at length about particular scenes. Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” also influenced his work.
The retrospective of Wyeth’s work celebrates the centennial anniversary of his birth. SAM organized the show with the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Visitors who want to delve deeper into his art can access an audio tour by phone or online.
Junker said Wyeth’s work was always popular. In 1967 his show at the Whitney Museum drew the curious eyes of 250,000 people. The response to Wyeth’s work at SAM has been positive with crowds exceeding their projections. Interest in Wyeth’s work is understandable. His ability to bring people and landscapes to life is best seen up close to fully appreciate his talent for capturing the essence of a subject.
Critics haven’t always spoken highly of Wyeth’s work, but he’s being taken seriously again. Junker suggests it’s because he excelled at portraying the human figure.
“We’ve come to see that our common humanity is not easily expressed by an abstract painting,” Junker said. “We’ve seen that some of the themes that he touches on, you know he paints a homeless man. He paints kind of isolation, marginalization. They resonate with us even though they are of another place and decades earlier. It feels to me like he’s touching us on a fundamental level and is stressing things that are of our time.”
WHAT: “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect”
WHEN: Runs until Jan. 15, 2018, tickets $24.95, half off on First Thursday
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Avenue
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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Wait, there's more. Check out the full November 29 issue.