Published July 15, 2014
National Gallery of Art
Through Nov. 30
Andrew Wyeth is one of America’s best-known and beloved artists. His “Christina’s World” is as famous as Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” or Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” Few artists have been showered with such distinctions: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and memberships in distinguished European art academies. Yet many thoughtful critics have disparaged his work, calling it saccharine, light on content, pandering and lacking in artistic skill.
Despite his enormous popularity, Wyeth (1917-2009) was a curiously insular artist. His only teacher was his father, the great painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. The younger Wyeth studied the work of many other artists, but their influences were submerged in an idiosyncratic style that, once hardened, varied little as he aged. He found inspiration for his painting mainly from just two rural settings, and his subjects were often drawn from his immediate surroundings.
The National Gallery has long been Wyeth’s champion. In 1987 it mounted a major show with 140 of the “Helga Pictures,” a series of recently revealed images of a voluptuous young woman, often in the nude, that were seemingly unknown to the artist’s wife. The works created a national sensation when two made the covers of Time and Newsweek. Today, the museum continues to promote Wyeth as a first-rate artist worthy of a solo exhibition in the same vein as its previous shows on Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, painters universally acknowledged as American masters.
“Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” comprises 60 beautifully displayed works featuring windows. All were painted during four decades (1947-88) around Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford, Pa., and Cushing, Maine, where the artist summered. In both places he befriended neighbors and painted portraits of them and their dwellings.
Most of the subjects in the exhibition are unremarkable: a hayloft, shuttered windows, a tattered curtain, weathered siding, fruit on a ledge. Some include views of windows as part of an entire house or room, but most are more fragmented, depicting windows as isolated parts of a larger whole, creating a troubling sense of incompleteness.
The works are in several mediums—mainly watercolors, but also pencil, drybrush and tempera, a laborious medium in which egg yolks bind pigment to a hard surface, often gesso. Wyeth used this ancient medium, revived in the 20th century, to create a detailed, nuanced rendering much different from the sketchy, broad-brushed surfaces of his watercolors.
Against the advice of his father, the young Wyeth developed a palette with a limited range of colors: brown, green, white, gray and black, with touches of red and blue acting almost as exclamation points. The sameness of tone in many of the watercolors is jejune when seen in so many examples.
A case in point is the panoramic landscape “Back Way” (1982), where the white of the paper intended to be snow looks exactly like, well, white paper, while the murky brown foliage of the foreground registers merely as a series of inert brush strokes. Other watercolors, such as “Alvaro’s Bedroom” (1965) and “Night Light at Kuerners” (1960) fail because their stolid patches of surface-hugging paint muddle the subjects they seek to portray.
Yet occasionally, as in “Snowed In” (1980), a watercolor of buildings in a wintery landscape, there are masterly, nearly monochromatic arrangements full of light and atmosphere, skillfully formed by a deft arrangement of shape.
But Wyeth’s tempera paintings are the show’s highlights. Not only are they brighter and more complex than the dashed-off watercolors, but more sophisticated compositionally because they have been refined through a series of preparatory drawings.
One of these, “Evening at Kuerners” (1970), depicts a house and outbuilding set in a barren landscape with leafless trees whose spiky, fingerlike branches claw the sky. In this penumbral world only the whiteness of the house, with its illuminated windows, stands out, but in an ominous, sinister way, rather like the Bates’s home in “Psycho.” The painting evokes a sense of dread also seen in several of the still lifes, including “Untitled” (1983), a disquieting portrayal of a shattered skull on a window ledge. Wyeth’s artist son Jamie recognized this emotional substratum when he wrote that his father’s art was “terrifying.”
Wyeth’s words often endowed his works with mystical meaning and symbolism, interesting to the ear but not obvious to the eye. Hence his claim that the exhibition’s “Wind From the Sea” (1947), a painting of a landscape seen through a window partially covered by billowing curtains, is a metaphorical portrait of the woman depicted in “Christina’s World.” One of the authors of the exhibition’s sumptuous companion book writes that sometimes “the distance between the surface image of a Wyeth painting” and its symbolism “is so great that without commentary from the artist, it is doubtful the link could be known at all.” One wonders about the quality of art that in some instances needs to be explained by its author to be understood.
Very few artists emerge unscathed from a retrospective exhibition, even one as narrow as this, and Wyeth is no exception. The quality of his work varies: There are some riveting and unsettling paintings and several excellent, well-wrought drawings dashed off with aplomb. But there are also clumsy, foggy and nearly incoherent works where the artist strives, but fails, to be both a realist and an abstractionist.
Wyeth said, “If you can combine realism and abstraction, you’ve got something terrific.” Often his work is neither of these things, as seen in “The Reefer Study” (1977), a watercolor of a stairwell, staircase and window, which is unintelligible and almost amateurish in both its confused formal arrangement and delineation of space.
Nor do Wyeth’s windows have the powerful symbolism of Johannes Vermeer’s, whose radiant light consecrates the quotidian, nor the sacredness of Jan van Eyck’s luminous glass, a metaphor for the holy figures it illuminates, nor even the sophisticated compositional role of Henri Matisse’s paintings that brilliantly create isolation and loneliness.
One wonders why Wyeth’s advocates at the National Gallery thought he and the exhibition’s visitors would be well served by such a restricted selection of his art. Yet it is doubtful that even a major retrospective would have been more satisfying, because, with some notable exceptions, his work is formally and emotionally limited, despite its fame.
Nevertheless, Wyeth’s celebrity will attract a large audience to this show. So it’s a pity that the National Gallery hasn’t made it more accessible to fans with no knowledge of Wyeth other than “Christina’s World.” The companion book will certainly look impressive on a coffee table, but most visitors aren’t going to read its long essays while viewing the show. And even if they do, they will find very little factual material on the works they’re seeing, a lacuna that will not be filled by the scanty dog-tag wall labels, which are meager fare for the information-hungry visitor. Regrettably there’s not even the usual glossy exhibition guide or audio tour.
Other museums are building rich websites for their shows—the one for the Wyeth exhibition is bare bones—and online catalogs with links so that visitors, including the armchair ones, can get up to speed even before they enter the galleries. And the old-fashioned audio guide and handouts limited to just a few of the exhibited objects are being rapidly replaced by helpful bespoke apps that will deliver lots of useful information to the visitor’s mobile devices.
The National Gallery needs to get with the program.
Mr. Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.