Monday, January 19, 2009

RIP Andrew Wyeth

“Christina’s World,” 1948, by Andrew Wyeth.

American realist painter Andrew Wyeth died in his sleep last Friday at the age of 91. His obit in the NY Times is definitely worth a read. Like so many iconic figures in the history of American art his relevance within a bigger historical context is easy to lose sight of some 5 decades plus after his initial burst of fame. At the time "Christina's World" was purchased by the MOMA abstract expressionism - the current bane of my existence - was really hitting its stride causing artists like Wyeth to seem stodgy and out of date. In fairness, knowing myself as well as I do I probably would have erred on the side of the Wyeth detractors in that day as well... maybe.

If I had sided with the Wyeth detractors at that time I would have done so not knowing how many horrible imitations ab-ex would spawn. After the initial bloom of ab-ex wore off, art has since been plagued by wave after wave of self absorbed "expression" work that is more decorative than transcendent. Today, painting has seen a strong resurgence in regards to photo realism which I am all for.

Anyhoo, with that I'll give you this lovely excerpt from Kimmelman's obit. Enjoy:

One picture encapsulated his fame. “Christina’s World” became an American icon like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” or Whistler’s portrait of his mother or Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Wyeth said he thought the work was “a complete flat tire” when he originally sent it off to the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan in 1948. The Museum of Modern Art bought it for $1,800.

Wyeth had seen Christina Olson, crippled from the waist down, dragging herself across a Maine field, “like a crab on a New England shore,” he recalled. To him she was a model of dignity who refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone. It was dignity of a particularly dour, hardened, misanthropic sort, to which Wyeth throughout his career seemed to gravitate. Olson is shown in the picture from the back. She was 55 at the time. (She died 20 years later, having become a frequent subject in his art; her death made the national news thanks to Wyeth’s popularity.)

It is impossible to tell her age in the painting or what she looks like, the ambiguity adding to the overall mystery. So does the house, which Wyeth called a dry-bone skeleton of a building, a symbol during the Depression of the American pastoral dream in a minor key, the house’s whitewash of paint long gone, its shingles warped, the place isolated against a blank sky. As popular paintings go, “Christina’s World” is remarkable for being so dark and humorless, yet the public seemed to focus less on its gothic and morose quality and more on the way Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism that was distinctive if only for going against the rising tide of abstraction in America in the late 1940’s.

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