Why Wyeth?

America's most beloved artist can make you nostalgic for places you've never been

Andrew Wyeth and I go way back. When his now-notorious Helga Pictures -- a series of drawings and paintings of a neighbor, many of them nudes, executed in total secrecy over a 15-year period -- made its belated Florida debut at the Norton Museum of Art in 1996, I reviewed the show for Boca Raton magazine. And the next year, when New Times announced it was launching a Broward/Palm Beach edition and looking for an art writer, the review got my foot in the door.

So how could I not check out "Andrew Wyeth: American Master"? This small but fairly comprehensive retrospective, which includes more than 50 works from a career that spans an astonishing 70 years, is one of four exhibitions now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. If the crowd checking it out opening weekend is any indication, Wyeth's standing as the most popular living American artist remains unchallenged. The Saturday crowd, in fact, was sufficiently daunting to prompt a detour, so I took in the other three shows before returning to Wyeth after the initial rush had passed.

Shoehorned into a cramped space opposite Wyeth is "Rudolf Bauer: Berlin Drawings of the 1920s and 1930s," a selection by a German artist better known for abstract paintings in the Kandinsky mold. Ten drawings from Bauer's "Concentration Camp" series of the late 1930s are, despite the grim title, playful geometric compositions that affirm Kandinsky's influence. But most of the show highlights Bauer's skill as a draftsman working in various degrees of realism. In one especially striking image, Soldier with Arm in Sling, the arm in question has been severed from the body.

Wyeth's exhibit could be titled "A Sense of Place."
Wyeth's exhibit could be titled "A Sense of Place."

Next stop: "Buccellati: The Art of the Goldsmith," which I approached with let's-get-this-over-with skepticism. Why waste precious museum space when Cartier and Tiffany are only a few minutes away at Town Center? Moments later I was gasping at the attention to detail and the sheer extravagance of many of the 50 pieces on display, which represent the more recent output of the Italian family business founded in the mid-18th century and now headed by Gianmaria Buccellati.

There's plenty of jewelry. An especially inspired design for a phoenix brooch features the mythological bird's body fashioned from "a concretion composed of 17 pearl nuclei" and set in gold; a huge pearl forms the ashes, a ruby the eye, and the plumage includes 26 emeralds and more than 800 diamonds. It's a bit of understatement, though, to characterize this little exhibition as a jewelry show. Among the Buccellatis' output: a gorgeous pair of rock-crystal candelabra intricately decorated with silver; a purely decorative item that combines a large chunk of egg-shaped malachite with gold, silver, quartz, and lapis lazuli; and a chess set that pits ivory Christian Crusaders against silver Saracens on a board made of lapis lazuli and malachite squares. The latter was created in 1982, although the current environment in the Middle East conjures a whole new set of geopolitical connotations.

More opulence is evident in "Boca Raton Collects: A Visual Feast of Promised Gifts and Bequests," which features selections from the private collections of Dani and Jack Sonnenblick and Isadore Friedman. From time to time the Boca Museum showcases such local collections, and these two include gems of an entirely different order than those in Buccellati jewelry.

The Sonnenblicks go for big names. There are nearly two dozen modern and contemporary artists represented in their portion of the exhibition, including Alexander Calder, Richard Diebenkorn, Jim Dine, Marcel Duchamp, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, Man Ray, André Masson, Kenneth Noland, and Francis Picabia.

Fortunately, they have an eye for quality as well. Consider a trio of works by 20th-century female titans. Allo, Amelie (1973), a large oil by second-generation abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, provides a grand welcome to the show. (The information panel cites "William" de Kooning as an influence on Mitchell, a careless mistake repeated in the catalog.) The gestural brushwork is echoed in another big abstract, the Helen Frankenthaler acrylic Window on Santa Fe (1987). And Royal Organ (1960), a freestanding Louise Nevelson construction made of wood painted gold, would fit in perfectly at the Nevelson retrospective that's winding down at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Friedman's half of the show is devoted to black-and-white photographs from the early 20th century, specifically 1903 to 1917, when they were featured in Camera Work, the influential magazine edited by Alfred Stieglitz. There are 70 or so prints by about 20 photographers, including two dozen by Stieglitz and another dozen by his protégé Eduard Stei-chen (he became Edward upon moving to the U.S. in 1918).

Looking back from our vantage point roughly a century later, it's easy to take photography's hard-won status as an art for granted. These images, many of them hauntingly beautiful, are reminders of the visionaries who advanced that struggle for legitimacy. And as examples of early techniques used for photographic reproduction -- photogravure and gum prints -- they' re also important historical documents, which is no doubt why Friedman, currently the museum's board president, collects them.

It's too bad these selections from the Sonnenblick and Friedman collections are forced to share the same space at the same time rather than consecutively. (For that matter, the same could be said of the Bauer and Buccellati shows.) Andrew Wyeth suffers no such indignity. The work of this beloved American realist, who turns 88 in July, is given ample room to breathe.

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