Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
There has always been something inexplicable about the work of Andrew Wyeth. There was the lack of color which his own father, N. C. Wyeth was critical of. I thought his paintings were wonderful and the restrained palette merely became a curiosity to me. Even more curious was the odd subject matter and the even more provocative activities taking place in the paintings.
An article in the June 2006 issue of The Smithsonian helped me a great deal in understanding the paintings and Wyeth’s intention. It described Wyeth as a “magic realist,” a label which matches the imaginative depth of the mystic with a brush.
“In 1950, writing for ART News, Elaine de Kooning [wife of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning] praised Wyeth as a ‘master of the magic-realist technique. Without tricks of technique, sentiment or obvious symbolism,’ she wrote, ‘Wyeth, through his use of perspective, can make a prosperous farmhouse kitchen, or a rolling pasture as bleak and haunting as a train whistle in the night.’”[i]
Wyeth was a realist in that he didn’t pander to anyone with sentimentality and was communicating in a profound way about the illusion of P-B and the reality of P-A. His critics did not understand his work because they were enthralled by the illusion of their own false-selves. They could not see the profound psychological depth of his work. Instead, “he was increasingly castigated as old-fashioned, rural, reactionary and sentimental.”[ii]
Even today’s critics revealing their narrow worldviews miss Wyeth’s mystical insights and his brilliant technique. “Nothing about Wyeth is honest. He always goes back to that manicured desolation. He’s so averse to color, to allowing real air—breath of nature—into his pictures.”[iii] These critics seem to be having ego-driven reactions that cloud their higher sensibilities. Wyeth’s work is replete with transcendent meaning.
The impermanent or fleeting nature of life was deeply felt by Wyeth and denied by the culture in which he lived. He had the courage to communicate in his paintings an aspect of reality that is foundational to Self-realization. If we take time to “feel” his work we would find that “he tends to paint three subjects: still-life vignettes, vessels (such as empty baskets), and thresholds (views through windows and mysterious half-opened doors). All three serve Wyeth as metaphors for the fragility of life.”[iv]
The second realization that gives energy to Wyeth’s work is the unconsciousness of the behavior of people captivated by P-B. Referring to Wyeth’s Groundhog Day (1959), Henry Adams observes that “the painting suggests the violence and even madness that often simmers beneath the surface of daily life.”[v]
And finally, Wyeth I think intuitively sensed the importance of giving feeling or the heart dominance over the intellect in order to live an authentic life. As the artist himself said, his goal was “intensity—painting emotion into objects.”[vi] That was what he cared about most.
Artists tend to be rebellious since they are frequently nonconformists anyway. On top of that they are prophets if their work is a genuine expression of the Implicate Order or their own personal muse. Wyeth, I’m sure was little troubled by his critics since he had no choice but to continue painting his own personal vision whether his father (whom he loved and respected) or the self-styled experts liked it or not.
Self-reliance is the bedrock of the true mystic and Andrew Wyeth was guided by his inner wisdom. The meaning of his work may be obscure to others in such paintings as Airborne (1996), but he knew what he was doing. “The explosion of feathers stands for Wyeth’s rebellion to structure.”[vii]
In viewing Wyeth’s work perhaps we should rely less on trying to understand it and more on “feeling” the intention of one of America’s truly prophetic mystics.
[i] Adams, Henry. “Wyeth’s World.” Smithsonian. June 2006, page 88.
[iii] Ibid., page 89.
[iv] Ibid., page 90.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.