Reconsidering the Realism of Andrew Wyeth

SAM’s new exhibition examines the life of a popular, panned painter who took humanity as it is.

Seattle Art Museum’s Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect is a first in many ways. It’s the first retrospective of the artist’s life from his earliest career until his death in 2009. It debuted this spring at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn., a regional museum and conservancy whose most notable works come from three generations of Wyeths: N.C., Andrew, and Jamie. There, the houses and landscapes you see in Wyeth’s paintings are all around you; thus this Seattle stop is the first chance to see In Retrospect in the broader context of 20th-century art rather than in situ.

Wyeth would have turned 100 this past July. He came of age in the aftermath of World War I and was a young man during World War II. A month after the war ended, his nephew and father, the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, were killed when their car was struck by a freight train near Andrew’s childhood home in Chadds Ford. In the years to come, his star would continue to ascend, but always closer to the ecliptic than the poles—that is, his popular acclaim and financial success were indisputable, but also galling to critics, who felt he should not be a cynosure.

These critics were championing abstraction. As it happens, some, like Clement Greenberg, were actually on the payroll of the CIA. Their task was simple: give the world an exciting, “culturally superior” American alternative to Soviet Realism—abstract expressionism and minimalism were the key. In this milieu, realism of any sort was barely tolerated by critics. It wasn’t clever. It wasn’t cool. And Wyeth was its master.

This dismissive critical drag on Wyeth’s work has gradually been re-evaluated. People jest morbidly about the posthumous fame of artists and the rising value of their work. Wyeth saw enormous success and wealth, thanks in large part to the shrewd management of his work by his wife, Betsy. What they didn’t live to see was the sort of critical re-imagining of Wyeth’s work represented by In Retrospect.

This isn’t a best-of show, nor a hagiography. It’s an expansive view of the artist’s life and the lives of those around him through his work, an exhibit that will satisfy both longtime fans and first-time audiences. More important, it is a chance to have a conversation about the role of art—what agendas it has served in recent history and what wisdom may yet be found in it.

To paraphrase one critic of the time, Wyeth doesn’t paint anything we haven’t seen before. This is true. Wyeth painted people and landscapes. Why this was a problem for critics was another matter. There was the need to assert American cultural supremacy, but also a more general pursuit of novelty and commodity, of dogmatic Progress. How does one know if one is actually progressing? Well, on a ship you have navigators, and in a culture you have critics, declaring their most self-aware version of progress (technological, social, artistic).

What is even more apparent today is that our notion of progress is almost synonymous with disruption. The non-Western peoples colonized and brutalized by colonial Progress knew it. The rural farmworkers displaced by industrial Progress knew it. The soldiers chewed apart by military Progress knew it. On and on to today, as technological Progress continues to outpace our ability to understand its power and therefore the ethics that ought to guide its use. We ask not “What happened?” but “Who got there first?” and to the fastest we confer ownership (of lands, ideas, people). The obsession with novelty in art is driven by the same meritocracy as patents and colonization, which benefit the already privileged. If critics aim for social Progress without reckoning with this, can we honestly expect a different result?

What artists like Wyeth knew was that, despite these disruptions, individuals were altered by their times, but humanity has not changed. The reports of the birth of the post-human have been greatly exaggerated. To quote Robert Frost, “Most of the change we think we see in life/Is due to truths being in and out of favour.” Frost was a formative figure for Wyeth. He was born the same year as Wyeth’s father, and he read the poet as a youth. The quote above comes from “The Black Cottage” (1915), which, like much of of both Frost’s and Wyeth’s work, uses familiar, bucolic settings as springboards into deeper meditation.

More than Frost’s, however, Wyeth’s work is morbid. We see dead men, dead birds, paralyzed girls. Things are always ready to sink back into the earth and sea, and so, despite the arrogations of Progress and without the sentimentality of other rural realists, Wyeth’s mementos mori say that we are always owned by the landscape, not the other way around.

Among Wyeth’s most famous muses were his neighbors, Karl Kuerner and Helga Testorf. Kuerner was a German immigrant farmer who had been mentally shattered by his time as a machine gunner in World War I. (Wyeth as a youth even suspected Kuerner of being a German spy and snuck into the Kuerner home to check for radio equipment.) Wyeth painted many portraits of Kuerner, some of which do not include him except in ways symbolic of his viciousness: his old helmet being used to collect pine cones, an empty place setting with only a sharp knife. In his portrait of Karl and his wife Anna, Karl is halfway out the door, with his back turned to her, and Anna is looking askance, despondent. The rifle resting in his arm is pointed at her head.

It took a long time for Wyeth to be welcomed into the home, no longer suspecting Kuerner of intrigue. Instead he started a secret work of his own: his famous portraits of Helga, Kuerner’s caretaker. Over 12 years, Wyeth made a number of paintings of her without anyone’s knowledge, not even his wife’s. It was treated as a scandal when the paintings were finally exposed, but when one really looks at them, there is nothing passionate or illicit. Even when Testorf is painted nude, there is no eroticism. They are as frank and deathly as anything else Wyeth painted.

This same clinical distance is evident in Wyeth’s paintings of the inhabitants of Little Africa, a black community near Chadds Ford that was founded by Quakers during the time of the Underground Railroad. They were Wyeth’s documentation of the community as it disappeared in the ’50s and ’60s. In Retrospect marks the first time many of these paintings have been seen in a museum. In the exhibit’s catalog, an essay by professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw examines the “Black Paintings” in greater detail, including two from the 1970s that depict a black woman but were actually painted with Testorf as the model. It’s just the sort of insightful re-evaluation that one wants from a retrospective but rarely gets, including Wyeth’s questionable blackening of a secret muse to paint a slave in Barracoon (1976).

Wyeth seems to have been born an old man, aware of modern folly from an early age and uninterested in playing at it. He didn’t go to war, but he saw its legacy in Kuerner. He was a successful artist, but he wouldn’t play politics in the art world. When others tried to copy his works’ asceticism, they produced mere Puritan postcards. Wyeth gets at something deeper, much more contrary to the modern ethos: stasis, silence, humility. In Retrospect may be a first in many ways, but its wisdom is as old as the hills. Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Opens Thurs., Oct. 19.