Andrew Wyeth In Retrospect at The Brandywine River Museum of Art

“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.

Review: The Nicholas Roerich Museum

“When humanity is possessed by the devils of malice and mutual destruction, every token of affirmativeness and mutual help is especially valuable.” Nicholas Roerich.



On the north side of 107th Street, one building east of Riverside Park, stands the Nicholas Roerich Museum. The house is its own work of art. Paintings and artifacts decorate the walls and stairways of the three floors that are open to the public.

Roerich was a painter, philosopher, writer, archeologist, stage designer, and firm believer in the power of art and spirituality to cure the plagues that have infected humanity, in his time and ours. His spiritual curiosity was sufficiently diverse that subjects of his paintings include Mohammed, Elijah, The Mother of the World, The Spirit of the Himalayas, and St. Francis of Assisi. The building was once home to his Master Institute of United Arts and now serves as a gallery for over 150 of his paintings as well as hosting a regular schedule of concerts and poetry readings. It also includes a small bookshop where I picked up a copy of his book The Invincible for $4.

With his wife Helena, he founded the Agni Yoga school of mysticism in 1920. They also traveled extensively through Asia, including a 1934-35 expedition through Manchuria, sponsored by the US Dept. of Agriculture which was headed by Henry Wallace who would go on to become FDR’s vice-president. The purpose of the expedition was to collect seeds and they collected over 300 species, as well as uncovering important ancient manuscripts. 

A view up the stairwell


Roerich’s belief in the power of art led him to develop the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments, also known as The Roerich Pact. From Wikipedia:

The most important idea of the Roerich Pact is the legal recognition that the defense of cultural objects is more important than the use or destruction of that culture for military purposes, and the protection of culture always has precedence over any military necessity.


He was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 1929, 1932, and 1935.

As the man’s art, both paintings and writings, can speak eloquently for themselves, the following are examples of both. 


 

Tibetan Lakes

A bird flying over the water lightly touches the calm surface, and long afterward the forms which before had been beautifully reflected will be atremble.

Lord of the Night

On the physical plane everything can be exhausted, but on the spiritual plane at the base of everything lies inexhaustibility. And it is by this measure that the two planes are primarily divided.
Mother of the World

In addition to many other kinds of contagions, epidemics of madness frequently appeared upon various continents. Whole countries suffered from the intrusion of malicious ideas into various domains of life. Naturally, these epidemics broke out especially frequently in the spheres of religion, superstition, and within the bounds of official suspiciousness.

 

Most Sacred (Treasure of the Mountains)

Great faith is laid into creativity. Since ancient times the paths of art have been sanctified. On these paths mutual understanding and friendship remain steadfast.

 

Repentence

Precisely now, when the contemporary way of life strives toward brevity, abruptness, and chance, it is especially essential to aspire to evaluations based upon the entire oeuvre.

 

Star of the Hero

The great elders, hermits, and dwellers in caves knew unerringly where the heart is, how to treat it, and how to evoke its benevolent action. What a wonderful word – Benevolence!

One final note on these paintings – photography does not do them justice. They should be seen on the walls of the museum, among themselves. The Nicholas Roerich Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 12-5 and on the weekends from 2-5. Closed Mondays. Admission is free, donations accepted. 

REVIEW: The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

If you find yourself in New Orleans and for whatever reason you don’t feel like trying a new cocktail or listening to the best live music on the planet while eating char-broiled oysters, take the St. Charles streetcar to the corner of St. Joseph Street and walk the two blocks to The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. If the weather’s nice, it’s a half hour walk from the heart of the French Quarter.

 The first piece you’ll see is this one:

It’s called Young Life by Bo Bartlett from Georgia and lists among its influences Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Bruce Springsteen, Pablo Picasso, Grant Wood and the photo that Marina Oswald took of her husband.



 
When I visited last month there was a photography exhibit on the first floor including this work called Fragility by Milisa Taylor-Hicks.

Exhibiting photography that grows from Southern culture is an important part of the museum’s mission, but I was most affected by the paintings.

The two paintings below are by Will Henry Stevens. You can find more of his paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. The one on the left is untitled and undated. The one on the right is Ships in the River from 1942. 


 























Some of the works depict rural scenes from another era, including, from Georgia, Richard Wilt’s Farewell from 1942;









From Florida, Christopher Clark’s The Crap Shooters from 1936;




















and, from Alabama, John Kelly Fitzpatrick’s Mules to Market from 1937.









Lush landscapes include, from Florida, George Herbert McCord’s Sunset on St. John’s River from 1878, and from Louisiana, Alexander John Drysdale’s Bayou Teche Country 1 from 1927.












More contemporary works include, from Louisiana, Patricia Whitty’s Rose, Green, Indigo from 1993;











also from Louisiana, Michael Deas’ The Neglected Keys from 2012;











from Georgia, Benny Andrews’ Death’s Arrival (Langston Hughes Series), from 1981;


and, from Louisiana, Kendall Shaw’s Sunship, for John Coltrane, from 1982.


Click on any of the artists’ names to learn more about them. Except for poor old Christopher Clark. I couldn’t find anything on him.


There are constantly changing exhibits and events for adults and children. Located at 925 Camp Street, they are closed Tuesdays but open the rest of the week from 10-5, 10-8 on Thursdays. They’re only a couple of blocks from the Mississippi River, which you can follow back to Jackson Square and the cocktails, the oysters, and the best live music on the planet.

Review: Field of Dreams – The Surrealist Landscape

“Surrealism is the ‘invisible ray’ which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents. ‘You are no longer trembling, carcass’. This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.”   David Gascoyne, A Short Survey of Surrealism, 1936

Fans of surrealism (of which I’m at least one) are in for a treat with the exhibition Field of Dreams – The Surrealist Landscape, through December 18 at the Di Donna Gallery. Surrealism is generally thought of as an artistic movement that began in the 1920s, but this show opens with a painting from the 17th Century. This lovely but ordinary landscape becomes a portrait when turned on its side:

Two of the form’s great masters – René Magritte and Salvador Dalí – are well-represented in this collection, with nine works between them. The giant eye of Magritte’s Le Faux Miroir, from 1950 is a classic piece of surrealism. An earlier version hangs in MoMA. The artist Man Ray (whose work also appears in this exhibit) once owned Le Faux Miroir and described it as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen.”

Dali’s work, as always, refuses attempts to integrate with the work of other artists. He would stand out among his peers, if he had any. As Sigmund Freud said of Dali in a letter to the novelist Stefan Zweig: “I have been inclined to regard the Surrealists as complete fools, but that young Spaniard Salvador Dali with his candid, fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate.” The painting Girafe en feu, included here, employs the image of a burning giraffe, which he used in other painting and film work and described as “the masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster.” He believed it to be a premonition of war.

In addition to those two giants, this collection includes works by Picasso, Miro, Calder, and Ernst, among others. I due soli, from 1969, by Giorgio de Chirico, is one of the most recent paintings in this exhibit and retains the playfulness and absurdity that is the hallmark of surrealism in its depiction of the sun, the moon, and their energy.

The Di Donna Gallery is located on the second floor of the Carlyle Hotel, on the corner of Madison and 76th Street. Admission is free and open to the public Monday – Saturday from 10:00 to 6:00.

In the spirit of surrealist absurdity, I’ll close this post with a surrealist painting of my own, from 1982, named Wrong Number.


Review: Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Archibald Motley was born in 1891 in New Orleans. His travels would lead him over the years from Bronzeville in Chicago, to a year in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship, to Mexico in the company of his nephew, the writer Willard Motley, and through January 17 of next year in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

One of the first paintings to bring him notice was the 1927 piece Mending Socks which was voted the most popular painting at the Newark (NJ) Museum. For obvious reasons. His skill as a portrait artist is impossible to ignore. The colorful composition highlights an eye for detail that would have made him an excellent still-life painter but the complex and compelling depiction of human subjects arouse the curiosity of the viewer in a way no bowl of fruit or vase of flowers could. Mending Socks is actually a portrait and a half: that of his grandmother and the woman who owned her as a slave.

 

One of his most powerful portraits is Brown Girl After The Bath from 1931. In a twist on classical depictions of Venus he complicates the view of the subject and its viewer by reflecting their gazes through a mirror. As in some of his other paintings, including Between Acts and Nude (Portrait of My Wife), Motley explores the female nude with an unflinching eye. One of his specialties was depicting the various skin tones of his subjects. As he explained, “They’re not all the same color, they’re not all black, they’re not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they’re not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that’s hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics”

In addition to his portraits he captured the exuberance of nightlife with an expert eye. The joy, danger, and passion of late nights, music, dancing, and drinking are barely able to contain themselves on his overflowing canvases, like Blues from 1929.

The final canvas in the Whitney show, The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, is a work as complicated and challenging as its name. It took him ten years to paint – from 1963 to 1972 – and contains portraits of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Satan. It is a striking departure from the joyful debauchery and somber portraits of most of his work and is a fitting end piece to this fascinating exhibit.

Review: John Singer Sargent Portaits of Artists & Friends

 

John Singer Sargent was the top portrait artist of his age, an age when photography and impressionism were having profound impacts on the visual arts. He combined realistic detail with an emotional depth that still resonates and can be experienced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 4.

The subjects for his portraits include patrons, friends and his fellow artists. The painting at left, of Charles Stuart Forbes, has a depth of both color and mood that can’t be captured by a camera. Splashes of white on the bottom lip and forehead of the subject gives him the moisture of a living man. The artist scrawled across the bottom of this apparently unfinished painting, “To my friend Forbes.” We should all have such friends.

The subject of the portrait at the right is the actor Edwin Booth. He became manager of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City in 1863. On November 25, 1864, Edwin and his two brothers put on their sole performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Outside the theater the clanging of fire alarms whipped the crowd into a frenzy. According to the next day’s New York Times: “but for the presence of mind of Mr. Booth, who addressed them from the stage of the theatre, telling them there was no danger, it is fearful to think what would have been the result.” The fires surrounding the theater were the work of Confederate sympathizers trying to burn New York to the ground. Firefighters saved the city. Edwin Booth saved Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, whose foot slipped as the the two men stood next to each other on a train platform. Unfortunately, nobody could save the president from Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes Booth.

The performance of Julius Ceasar was a fundraiser for a statue of Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park near East 66th Street.

By 1913, Sargent had tired of portraiture and devoted most of his artistic energy to landscapes. When he was asked to paint a portrait of his great friend Henry James, in honor of the novelist’s 70th birthday, he couldn’t refuse. It had been years since he had painted a portrait and was afraid that he’d lost his touch. You can decide for yourself, but the subject said it was “a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”

In exterior works reminiscent of his friend Claude Monet and interiors that bring to mind Edward Hopper, the scope of Sargent’s talent is on full display in this exhibit.

And it wouldn’t be a proper presentation of Sargent’s portraits without his most famous one, the stunning and controversial portrait of Madame X. He spent over a year painting this portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau but she never sat for him as his other subjects had. In fact, she hadn’t given him permission to paint her and when he displayed the work in Paris in 1884 the reaction was so negative that he moved to London. The original painting had the strap on her right shoulder sliding down her arm. He changed his painting to pull up her strap but the scandal had already been unleashed. Despite the furor, when he looked back on it 30 years later he said, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

The riches of The Met are always worth a visit and if you can fit it onto your calendar before October 4, you’ll be rewarded with this unique exhibit.

Review: Maira Kalman Selects

I’m not really into design, per se, but I went to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum because this sounded look an interesting exhibit. In Maira Kalman‘s own words:

“What is this room about?
Very loosely, it is about life and death.
But isn’t everything?
It is about falling in love with a group of objects.”

For me, the stars of the show are the porcelain women. There’s three of them: Just inside the entrance is The Firebird from 1920 Russia. The Figure of a Dancer from 1900 France is frozen in the opposite corner, shielding her delicate features with her solid arm. Across the room from both of these is The Ballerina Galina Ulanova in the Role of Maria. That face. That foot.

Of course, there’s more to the exhibit than the porcelain ladies. There’s a watch that belonged to Abraham Lincoln as well as the pall that covered his casket. There are a pair of pants that belonged to Arturo Toscanini and a chair with a video screen imbedded in it.

 
The museum itself is contained in an incredible building that was once home to Andrew Carnegie and offers many sights worthy of a trip to the corner of 92nd & 5th. In 1897 Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt founded the museum at the Cooper Union with their own personal collection of art and artifacts that “could be touched, moved, sketched, photographed, and measured.” It’s a hands-on museum.

“Jerusalem from the Mount of Olive” by Frederick Church

For lovers of painting, the world’s largest collection of the works of American realist painter Winslow Homer and Hudson River School artist Frederick E. Church are also part of the Cooper-Hewitt collection.

Maira Kalman Selects is on view through June 14. The museum opens every morning at 10:00 and closes each evening at 6:00, except for Saturdays when it stays open until 9:00. Don’t be fooled by the Smithsonian name, though. Unlike the museums in DC, this one is not free. Admission is $18 (or $16 if you buy your tickets online).