I approach Andrew Wyeth’s work circumspectly, in order to tease apart and separate the art from the commodity. For me this wariness dates from 1986, when the existence of the Helga paintings—dozens of works that took Wyeth’s neighbor and aesthetic accomplice Helga Testorf as his subject—hit the covers of Time and Newsweek, and Wyeth’s popularity accelerated on the strength of shrewd public relations and voyeurism.
Several works from the Helga series feature in a new show at Adelson Galleries, Andrew Wyeth: Seven Decades. It’s a strong, if necessarily limited survey of a life’s work. For the show’s catalogue the eminent scholar Dr. William H. Gerdts has contributed essays riddled with rhetorical questions, a contrivance that suggests each painting is shrouded in mystery. Well, notwithstanding decades of literature asserting his mystique, there are few famous artists who are less enigmatic than Wyeth. This is not Vermeer: we know the salient details of Wyeth’s life, and he was open about what made him tick. The insistence on mystery has become a bother, perhaps intended to neutralize the impression that Wyeth’s content is too accessible.
To the public, accessibility has never been an issue. From early on, Wyeth’s facility was remarkable; his first New York show sold out when he was twenty. The ambivalence he felt about the ease with which he handled watercolor—see the flourish of The Pirates (1939) or Maplejuice Cove (1942)—led him to the painstaking discipline of egg tempera. A wonderful early example in that medium is On the Beach (1946), a meditative panorama filled with sky, ocean and sand. Slight Breeze (1968) is a mature tempera, Wyeth having mastered the nuances of filmy sunlight on a whitewashed building with a personal visual idiom that is instantly recognizable and much imitated.
Although Wyeth’s stringent palette was tailored to his preference for desiccated landscape, his response to the nude could be surprisingly and frankly sensual. His most successful figures were painted from direct observation and situated in real environments. “Wyeth has, I think,” wrote John Updike correctly, “an intense and individual enough relation to his visual material not to need to toy with it.” Lovers Study (1981), a painting done in watercolor and drybrush, depicts Helga’s body ablaze in a beam of sunlight as she sits in a darkened room. The shadows that cut across her upper torso and lower legs give way to an illuminated abdomen and thigh, a counterintuitive lighting that brings attention to the voluptuous swell of her hips.
Two other watercolors of distinctly different moods are equally notable. The first is Army Blanket (1957), a nearly monochromatic piece in which broad, virtuosic passages start and stop on a dime. Washes of deep shadow, their value improbably calculated at one go, are tersely measured against the corner facade of a clapboard home. Rapidly painted trees, grasses, and the off-kilter rectangle of a hanging blanket all connote motion of the sort that Hopper could not or did not wish to bring to similar paintings, and at which Wyeth excelled when so moved.
The other watercolor, In the Orchard (1973), is a more intricately plotted effort. Helga sits on the ground and leans against a sturdy apple tree, while the branch of another skews directly into her profile. In the Orchard’s composition is built upon more diagonals than can be counted with both hands, the eccentric shapes of the secondary tree twisted violently against a pale sky. The tree against which Helga leans is the painting’s stanchion, a sole vertical that supports not only her figure but the entire downhill-sliding design. Apples, hanging from branches and littering the ground, provide the season’s last fertile notes in an otherwise barren landscape.
These paintings stand out for their graphic impact and precise draftsmanship. They exemplify Wyeth’s skill as a designer—value interested him far more than color—with an aptitude for balancing specificity and abstraction. He explained the importance of distilling essential visual information in a 1970s interview:
“You have to find a method to capture the quality of an object. And it isn’t because you put in every fleck on a pile of stones or every blade of grass on the hill. That doesn’t make up a powerful painting. That’s why I feel strongly about a lot of so-called realism that is done today which I think I’ve had a very bad influence on. They think it’s the amount of detail, and that really isn’t it.”
In other words, Wyeth was never the quaint stenographer of American nostalgia that the public mistook him for, but neither was he impenetrable. His best work, at once detached and sneakily emotional, exists aside from the market and above popular misinterpretation.
Andrew Wyeth: Seven Decades (e-catalogue here) is on view at Adelson Galleries (730 Fifth Avenue) until December 20. The Friday afternoon I visited, two excellent portraits by John Singer Sargent hung in the back gallery.