“To have all your life’s work and to have them along the wall, it’s like walking in with no clothes on. It’s terrible.” Andrew Wyeth
On October 19, 1937, Andrew Wyeth had the first exhibition of his works, a collection of 23 watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan. Two days later all the paintings were sold and his name was rippling across the art world.
This year, in celebration of his 100th birthday, The Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania is presenting a rare artistic feast in collaboration with the Seattle Art Museum. Over 100 of Wyeth’s paintings and drawings are on display in breathtaking galleries that are part Guggenheim/part rustic barn on three levels surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the woods and river into the visual experience.
“Artists today think of everything they do as a work of art. It is important to forget about what you are doing – then a work of art may happen.”
Like his friend Edward Hopper, Wyeth is a giant of 20th Century American art who is both revered and dismissed by critics. Abstract expressionism is often considered a deeper form of artistic expression than anything realistic or representational but Wyeth felt he captured something deeper than the objects he represented. The viewer can decide whether or not he succeeded.
You won’t find a lot of happy faces in Wyeth’s paintings. The closest thing to a smile may be the enigmatic one on the face of his wife and manager Betsy in the portrait from 1966 called Maga’s Daughter.
“One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.”
It is rare for more than one person to appear together on a Wyeth canvas. Most of his portraits have a stillness approaching emptiness that can be unsettling.
“I think anything like that – which is contemplative, silent, shows a person alone – people always feel sad. Is it because we’ve lost the art of being alone?”
On Christmas Eve 1967 Alvaro Olson died. His sister Christina died the next month. With the loss of two of Wyeth’s most dependable subjects, the artist needed new muses and found them in Helga Testorf and Siri Erickson. His nude paintings of this woman and girl were kept from the public eye for years but both are included in this exhibit.
While the Brandywine’s exhibit does not include Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World (you can find it outside a men’s room at MOMA whose founding director bought it in 1948 for $1,800), the unfamiliar works on display are more rewarding for their freshness. Thin Icewas acquired by the Nagaoko Contemporary Art Museum in Japan and is on display for the first time in the US.
“I’ve never studied the Japanese. That’s something that must have crept in there. But the Japanese are my biggest clients. They seem to like the elemental quality.”
There is a lot of empty space in Wyeth’s paintings. Or there is none. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment.”
“I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.”
Wyeth’s later years and the deaths of other reliable subjects brought deeper musings of mortality to his art.
“I don’t think that there is anything that is really magical unless it has a terrifying quality.”
“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
The exhibit closes with the final painting of Wyeth’s career, Goodbye, completed the summer before his death in January, 2009 at the age of 91.
“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”
The Brandywine River Museum of Art is 45 minutes southwest of Philly and 2 1/2 hours from Manhattan. The exhibit runs through September 17 and the museum is open every day from 9:30 to 5:00.
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