Andrew Wyeth died a few days ago, in his sleep at his home in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He was 91.
By coincidence, just a couple of weeks ago I had dinner with a friend in Mortonville, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from Chadd’s Ford. So I’ve been thinking about Wyeth the last few days.
Here’s a bit of what the New York Times has to say in its obituary:
Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.
All of what the mainstream press has to say about him is pretty much meaningless. The obituaries relate mostly to the business of building Wyeth’s public persona, a construction that created mass audiences and eventual sales of well over a $1 million for each major painting. That was good for Wyeth insofar as it made him and his family very rich and pushed his work into the public eye, where it could be excoriated by critics who had no ability to comprehend it.
As far as I’m concerned, Wyeth was the easily the most important artist of the 20th century. In part that’s because of his towering skill: his abilities with regard to technique, form, composition, and rendering were comparable to the finest artists in history. But that is of course only part of the story, as many past artists with superior technical skills but the absence of greatness have demonstrated. Beyond his technical skill was his ability to communicate his complete immersion in what he chose to paint. Critics liked to complain about his sentimental, dreary subject matter, his “fecal” palette, his obsession with detail, the repetitive nature of his work (as if what they liked was any less repetitive), his unapologetic dedication to an American visual tradition, and (most important in the modern art world) the complete absence of irony in his work.
None of that matters. Wyeth was utterly in love the places and people of a few small parts of Pennsylvania and Maine, and he knew how to convey that love. He wasn’t interested in working with any other subject matter, in any other way than what felt right to him, no matter what the critics or anyone else said. That kind of love, with the ability to communicate it, is what all good painting is about.
A few quotes:
“One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.”
“I love to study the many things that grow below the corn stalks and bring them back to the studio to study the color. If one could only catch that true color of nature—the very thought of it drives me mad.”
“God, I’ve frozen my ass off painting snow scenes!”