Tuesday, February 10, 2009

History in the Making

Watching Andrew Wyeth’s critical life after death play out in real time truly fascinates me. Very little about Wyeth’s art can be described in black and white terms, and the way that normally talented critics stumble over these grey areas says a lot about contemporary art criticism and how it makes or breaks certain artists. Although there have been some truly great tributes to the man and his art, most write-ups on Wyeth range from tepidly uninformed to almost defiantly uninformed. For example, The Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee says in “Wyeth's Works Inspired Condescension, Postwar Public,” “His finest paintings were lifted out of the ordinary by a haunting sensitivity to the emotional effects of open space. But he also peddled in kitsch. His painstaking technique had something mildly self-congratulatory about it, and the world he conjured was too pristine by half.” For Smee, Wyeth was a great technician but lousy chooser of subject material. I don’t understand how Wyeth’s world could be “too pristine” considering how he depicted poor African-Americans, simple farmers, and even disabled women in their disheveled natural environments with almost brutal honesty. Critics such as Smee simply cannot call upon the same sense of empathy that allowed Wyeth to enter into the world of these people. Wyeth’s “world” isn’t really “his,” it’s the world of his models made transcendent through his skill.

A great, yet unfortunately typical offender against Wyeth is Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker. Schjeldahl, winner of the 2008 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing, normally speaks and writes eloquently on art. When participating in a recent radio show focused on Wyeth’s art and legacy, Schjeldahl admitted he didn’t give Wyeth “a second thought,” because Wyeth lacked importance in the contemporary art scene dominated by the other Andy—Andy Warhol. In a perfect tautology, Wyeth doesn’t get a second thought because he’s not important, and isn’t important because he doesn’t get a second thought. Schjeldahl cites Wyeth Christina's World (above, from 1948), readily at hand for the critic at the MoMA in New York City, as his idea of Wyeth’s art. Somehow Schjeldahl decided that one famous work painted 60 years before defined an entire 70-year career. Another prominent anti-Wyeth critic, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones titled his take on Wyeth’s legacy in his blog, “Andrew Wyeth’s Work Represents the Worst of America.” Jones linked the end of the Bush presidency with the end of Wyeth and somehow arrives at the idea that Wyeth’s and Bush’s worlds are one and the same. “Good riddance,” Jones says to both, calling them “retrogressive, short-sighted, and strangely empty and banal.” Jones, too, remarks upon Christina’s World, recalling how he was “stunned by its triteness” upon seeing it in person for the first time. If Jones had ever studied Wyeth’s paintings of the poor, normally unseen and uncelebrated people of America, he would never equate Wyeth with the elitism of the Bush regime. Again, ignorance of the facts has its price, but Wyeth rather than critics pays.

Jones echoed Schjeldahl’s modernist prejudice by contrasting Wyeth with his contemporaries, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, whom he sees as courageous in their experimentation. “Wyeth by contrast is the artist of dishonest, selfish, conservative America,” Jones concludes. “And no, it is not more complicated than that.” Actually, it is. When one of the other critics on the radio show with Schjeldahl mentioned Wyeth’s Otherworld (above, from 2002), The New Yorker’s award-winning critic admitted that he was unaware of such a work and would be interested in seeing it. Jones and Schjeldahl never took the time to understand Wyeth’s “other world,” whether it be the classic Wyeth works of rural life or the nearly surreal images such as Otherworld. It’s disheartening to think that even such prominent critics refuse to take the time to give Wyeth a “second thought,” especially at this important juncture in Wyeth’s career, when the general picture of Wyeth as an artist is taking hold for what most likely will be the next generation or two. Ironically, both Schjeldahl and Jones praised a different American as a contrast to Wyeth—Norman Rockwell. Rockwell endured decades of critical mockery before he received the reevaluation that has made it “trendy” and “edgy” today to say that Rockwell’s a great artist. Is it too much to ask that the critics learn the lesson of Rockwell’s life after death and apply it to Wyeth by reevaluating his work now, thus saving him from the torture of misrepresentation for years? How many other artists have suffered or will suffer the same critical fate? Doesn’t the public following these critics deserve better service? Ultimately, Wyeth’s fate rests in the hands of those who set the standards for the times. Is it too much to ask for those standard-makers to live up to some standards themselves?


Kim said...

Well expressed!

Ronald D. Isom said...

I enjoyed your Wyeth blog entry.

I taught art in high school for 33 years and I can still hear myself explaining Wyeth’s work to my students. “He is an illustrator not an artists.” I also explained away Rockwell’s work with same flippant remark.

The abstract expression movement influenced my art and teaching. My teachers and colleagues had no tolerance for mere illustrators. I blindly followed the “arbiters of taste” and ignored the real meaning of art and discounted the “taste of the masses“.

I wish I had “ lived up to some standards”.

Enkidu said...

Bob Bob Bob! Why get involved in a cat-fight with art critics, especially when at least one is just politics masquerading as art criticism.

I first encountered Wyeth, (in reproduction - Christina's World, inevitably) when I was about 12. My first reaction was "why is the woman rolling around in a paddock" , which shows how much I knew. But I was attracted to the starkness and the composition. Having confronted it recently at MOMA I thought it somehow diminished (always imagined it to be larger) and, yes, perhaps a little dull. Still, the anguish of disability does come through.

Surely the point is not whether he was an artist of "dishonest, selfish, conservative America", but how well he portrayed it, how well its essence emerges?

I do like many aspects of Wyeth's work but I wouldn't put him in the top rank and I doubt if he will suffer much torture from re-evaluation, whether good or bad. If he was good he will be remembered, if bad not.

Ron: Don't beat yourself up, we're all followers of fashion! He was also an illustrator, nothing wrong with that.

Larry Aydlette said...

I wouldn't worry that critics will get the last word. Just last weekend in Palm Beach, a small Wyeth sold for $5 million. That says it all.

Tim McClure said...

The critics you cited are obviously trend followers, hacks. Suggestion: Get better critics.

Wyeth, I guess you could say that he dealt in "brutal honesty," but filtered through a rather small sentimentality. He dresses up trite ideas in high-fallooten technique, seeming to use his remarkable technical skills to make up for the unremarkability of the ideas.

What is that Otherworld thing? Some kind of stab at something between Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper? Seems confused to me. You described it as "nearly surreal..." I think the operative word in that description is "nearly," which is what Wyeth is for me, close but no cigar.