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Andrew Wyeth: an American Artist Everybody Knows(?)

Photo by Phillip Trey

There I was, in the MoMA for the first time ever and sick to my stomach, trying to use the art as a visual antacid. It was November two years ago, and my family and I were in New York City for a couple of days before flying to Florida to go on a week-long cruise for my brother’s 30th birthday. But before the beaches and warm weather, I found myself staring at original Van Goghs and other omnipresent artists in a world-class museum. While sluggishly scanning the rooms, I remember my mother saying nearby that she always loved the art of Andrew Wyeth. I turned to see her in front of a painting titled, “Christina’s World.”

The sight felt surprisingly familiar to me. It wasn’t until later that I realized “Christina’s World,” reminded me of another painting, one I’d grown up with. Suddenly I wasn’t nauseous in the MoMA but instead in my grandmother’s home, looking at a painting of a woman in a similar field with light snow on the grass, a farmhouse behind her, and laundry on the lines blowing in the wind. The energies between the two paintings could not be more different. “Christina” is laying in the field, reaching out towards something, farther from home. The colors and tone of the painting slightly darker. The woman in my familiar painting is standing, the height of her posture somehow echoing strength, as opposed to the longing I impose onto “Christina.” The colors and tone slightly lighter, yet with a similar level of detail. The two paintings seemed to me like distant echoes of each other.

"Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), it turns out, was one of the preeminent artists of the 20th century, and “Christina’s World” (1948), has become synonymous with his body of work; the title page of a book, if you will. “Christina” was created out of tempera paints. You know those little placards next to the art in museums? “Oil on Canvas.” “Acrylic on Canvas.” For people like me who know very, very little about types of paint, “Tempera” is also known as “Egg Tempera,” because the pigments are mixed with actual egg yolk to act as a binding agent. It’s been used for centuries, and even found on Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi. Wyeth’s first completed portrait using Tempera paints was of his Boston terrier puppy, Lupe. When presented with the infinite possibilities of what to paint first, choosing one’s pet is a remarkably relatable act to me – humanizing a now famous figure.

Wyeth’s work often involved people or places he was connected to in real life, like Christina (a neighbor afflicted with polio), but after their passing or enough time had been spent, he would move on to other projects, other people, other places. H’d create these everlasting images, but rather than rework the dead, so to speak, he would let their lives, and his work, move on.

Andrew Wyeth

In 1963, Wyeth became the first visual artist to be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy. In 1970, he was the first one-man show ever at the White House, with a 23-piece collection. Wyeth was, and posthumously is, a commercial and public success. Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times wrote about the tensions his popularity brought to the art world:

A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Mr. Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as any other American painter, including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Mr. Wyeth’s was rural.

Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Mr. Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject. Arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Mr. Wyeth for both categories.

Kimmelman also goes on to write:

Bucking the liberal art establishment, and making a fortune in the process, allowed Mr. Wyeth to play familiar American roles: the reactionary anti-establishmentarian and the free-thinking individualist who at the same time represented the vox populi. A favorite saying of his was: “What you have to do is break all the rules.” And as bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Mr. Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservatives’ paradoxical idea of disobedience through traditional behavior.

Viewing Wyeth’s life and work is like seeing a snap shot of American culture, and one I almost missed at the MoMA.

I’ve since learned that the painting I was remembering was done by Jeffrey H. Craven, and titled, “Just A Moment.” Craven lives and works not far from where I grew up in Idaho, and he attended the same school, Idaho State. Although Craven is nowhere near the celebrity status of Wyeth, both were/are able to support themselves with their art. You can find more of his work here.

"Just A Moment" by Jeffrey H Craven

Going to my grandmother’s house growing up, we often entered through the side door, which led into a mud room, which was connected to the laundry area, where the Craven piece hung. Visiting meant seeing that painting as part of the makeup of the home, the tradition of being there, like a silent greeting. All of that is different now, of course, after my grandmother’s passing, and “Just A Moment” now hangs in my mother’s home.

Kimmelman further quotes Wyeth towards the end of his piece,

“Let’s be sensible about this. I put a lot of things into my work which are very personal to me. So how can the public feel these things? I think most people get to my work through the back door. They’re attracted by the realism and they sense the emotion and the abstraction — and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.”

It’s almost as if he predicted my own reaction to “Christina’s World,” my own “powerful emotion.” Andrew Wyeth has another well-known quote: “One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes.” I feel this just reinforces my connection to his work. This generational power of recollection, from Wyeth to Craven, from my grandmother to my mother, from MoMA to farmhouse, is part of why I love museums. A space for finding artists and somehow in the process letting them become familiar, just never gets old. Opening up your eyes to unknown stories – whether I’m feeling well or not.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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