Monday, October 22, 2007

Passing the Torch

Karl Kuerner, Percheron in Chadds Ford, 1995. Acrylic on Panel 19 3/4 x 41 ¾. Collection of Louise and Karl Kuerner.

“It’s up to you to carry this on,” Andrew Wyeth says to Karl J. Kuerner in Gene Logsdon’s recent study, The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse. “And it won’t be easy.” The burden and blessing of the tradition of the Brandywine School, founded by Howard Pyle and carried forward by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth, now rests upon the shoulders of Karl J. Kuerner, grandson of the Karl Kuerner made famous in Andrew’s portraits. Kuerner’s own paintings now take the stage in the first survey of his art, All in a Day’s Work… from Heritage to Artist. With works such as Percheron in Chadds Ford (above), Kuerner embraces his artistic and family heritages simultaneously, remaining true to the twin sets of ideals intertwined throughout his life. “At the age of 50, Karl J. Kuerner is a true artist ready to show his talent to the world at large,” writes Andrew Wyeth in his introduction to All in a Day’s Work, starting the coming out party with a bang.

Karl Kuerner, In the Blink of an Eye, 1999. Watercolor 22 3/4 x 36 ¼. Collection of Samuel DiMatteo.

Kuerner claims that his earliest memories of the family farm are of watching Andrew Wyeth painting their bull. The influence of his grandparents on Kuerner remains as strong as that of Wyeth. “It was their acceptance of, almost reverence for, hard work that is often in his mind as he paints,” writes Gene Logsdon in the text accompanying the paintings in All in a Day’s Work. Anna Kuerner, Karl’s grandmother and also featured in many masterpieces by Andrew Wyeth, swept the porch regularly until her death at 98, an image Kuerner captures in his Anna’s Morning. Kuerner depicts her lingering (some would say spectral) presence on the farm and in his life in a later work, In the Blink of an Eye (above). “Sometimes I swear that I can still see her for a fleeting moment out of the corner of my eye,” Karl confesses. This tenderness shows the other side of the often brusque, brutal life of the farm that his grandfather embodied in Andrew’s art.

Karl Kuerner, Out of Nowhere, 2004. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48. Collection of Louise and Karl Kuerner.

Fate linked the lives of the Kuerners and Wyeths forever on October 19, 1945—the day N.C. Wyeth and his grandson died in a tragic car accident on train tracks running through the Kuerner farm. N.C.’s ghost haunts the Brandywine School even today, the crux upon which so many questions were decided. In Out of Nowhere (above), Karl pays homage to that sad beginning to so many years of Andrew’s genius. If N.C. had not died at that time, would Andrew have become the same kind of artist? Consequently, would Karl have become an artist at all? The role that Karl’s grandfather played as a surrogate father figure to Andrew brought Andrew closer to the Kuerner family and farm, providing him with one of the richest sources of his inspiration and opening the door for young Karl to enter an artist’s life himself.

Karl Kuerner, Miss Wyeth, 1981. Acrylic on illustration board, 30 x 40. Collection of Brandywine River Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wyeth, 1985.

Karl owes his success today not only to Andrew but also to Andrew’s sister, Carolyn, who taught Karl the foundations of painting. “I was just thirteen,” Karl recalls. “My father took some of my drawings to her and she offered to tutor me, which she did for seven years. I am forever grateful to her.” Karl’s painting Miss Wyeth (above) honors Carolyn’s memory and now stands shoulder to shoulder with other works of the Brandywine School at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Rather than painting a conventional portrait, Kuerner chooses to show Carolyn from a distance, standing outside in the falling snow, capturing at a remove and through a natural setting the solitary, sometimes gruff, yet essentially gentle, almost romantic nature of his teacher, a sadly forgotten figure in the Brandywine tradition.

Karl Kuerner, Charades, 2003. Acrylic on panel, 28 x 48. Collection of Louise and Karl Kuerner.

Whether Kuerner’s love of Halloween and the macabre comes from his contact with the Wyeths, from his family heritage, or both is unclear, but it comes through in many of his paintings, including Charades (above). “To chase away the temptation to gloom that comes with the dying down of the year, and also to take advantage of the leisure time that follows the end of the harvest, rural people turn to sport, to antic fun,” Logsdon explains in the Kuerner book. “Halloween. Witches and goblins. Pranksters.” Halloween pumpkins and pranks fill many of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth's works, evidence of their famously madcap sense of humor. Kuerner’s love of puns in his titles exceeds even that of the Wyeths in its playfulness. He also sometimes extends his Halloween-loving side past that of the Wyeths to the borders of the Surreal in works such as Charades and Storyteller, two theatrical visions featuring fog-covered foregrounds that prominently feature masks and address issues of identity in the context of art and telling tales.

Kuerner saves his native environment from becoming a theater backdrop in his work through his intimate, empathetic renderings, yet his consciousness of the “theater” that Chadds Ford has become for many art lovers thanks to the Wyeths and the Brandywine School adds a level of sophistication not apparent at first glance. By bringing into play these modernist, almost Magritte-esque themes of life as theater, Kuerner manages to inject the present into the past without losing the past as a separate and very tangible reality. Beneath Kuerner’s name on the cover of All in a Day’s Work appears the words, “nurtured in the greatness and simplicity of the Brandywine Valley tradition.” In his art, Karl Kuerner gives back to the Brandywine some of the vital substance and spirit that make that place and its people such a magical combination in the history of American art.

[Many thanks to Cedar Tree Books for providing me with a review copy of this book; to the Brandywine River Museum for the image of Miss Wyeth; to Qoro, LLC for the images of Percheron in Chadds Ford, In the Blink of an Eye, Out of Nowhere, and Charades; and to Karl and Louise Kuerner for their cooperation and kindness in the writing of this review.]


Sally Big Woods said...

Dear Bob,

Did you see the movie "The Village", by M. Night Shyamalan? Karl Kuerner's Charades, reminds me of that movie, completely. Excellent flick - the trailers didn't do it justice!

Bob said...

Hi, Sara,

Funny enough that you make the connection between "The Village" and Karl Kuerner's paintings. "The Village" was shot on location in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which is where Kuerner paints. Shymalan patterned the look of "The Village" after the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, the most famous Chadds Ford painter and a huge influence on Kuerner. Shyamalan himself grew up not too far from Chadds Ford, too. Walking around that area you get a sense of just how beautiful it can be and just how spooky it can be as well, especially at night. A great place to go for Halloween.