While I was reviewing the catalogue to The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso, I couldn’t help but think of the lost boy of modern art and modern portraiture—Andrew Wyeth, who celebrated his 90th birthday on July 12th. Cursed by popularity, Wyeth suffers under critical exile from the modernist cannon. One of the most jarring moments I’ve ever had in a museum was at the MOMA when I turned away from their selection of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and came face to face with Christina’s World, Wyeth’s most enduring image and a contemporary of those Abstract Expressionist paintings. That juxtaposition forced me to realize that paintings by Wyeth such as Alvaro and Christina (above) (Wyeth’s elegy for Christina Olson, the subject of Christina’s World, and her brother Alvaro) belong as much in the modern cannon as any other. Wyeth’s puckish humor and Peter Pan-like nature make him, even after nine decades, seem like one of the “Lost Boys,” but his exclusion from the histories of modern art make him truly the lost man of modernism.
The Mirror and the Mask brought to the forefront of my attention the issues of representation and misrepresentation in modern art. Despite his dedication to realism and his archaic tempera painting medium, Wyeth plays with these issues as much as anyone. In Alvaro and Christina, Wyeth uses the images of two doors to symbolize their closed existences, both before and after their deaths. Doors play a big role in the personal mythology of Wyeth’s world, offering openings into new possibility as well as lost opportunities. An equally symbolic portrait missing the physical presence of the ostensible subject is Groundhog Day (above). Here, Wyeth portrays Karl Kuerner, the German farmer and World War I veteran who was his neighbor in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Whereas Alvaro and Christina’s worlds are closed, as symbolized by the closed door, here Kuerner’s world is revealed through the transparent window. Outside the window we see the end of a log, its jagged, teeth-like end threatening in a wolf-like way, symbolizing Kuerner’s violent past. (The PMA’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic exhibit and catalogue marvelously documented the evolution of Wyeth’s drawings of an actual wolf dog into a wolf-like log.) The simple detail of a knife next the dish on the table with no fork, indicating that Kuerner ate only with a knife, further exposes the raw violence of the subject. Kuerner and his farm served as an endless source of fascination for Wyeth and are now part of the Wyeth “experience” offered by the Brandywine River Museum.