Why Wyeth?

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

Very early in "Andrew Wyeth: American Master," I scribbled in my notes that the exhibition might just as easily be called "A Sense of Place." Wyeth is celebrated for his portraits and his sentiment-soaked rustic scenes, but the strength of this show is in his landscapes, many of which are set in his native Pennsylvania and in Maine, where he spends his summers. Indeed, a whole section is devoted to "Landscape."

The introduction to the section offers a telling quote from the artist: "I feel limited if I travel. I feel freer in surroundings that I don't have to be conscious of." The effect of such rootedness, paradoxically, is to open up the possibilities of landscape. Wyeth may paint specific places, but he also imbues them with a timeless, placeless aura. How else to account for images that connect so powerfully with people who have never been to the places he portrays?

For me, anyway, Wyeth invigorates landscape by pushing it toward abstraction. The 1967 tempera The Sweep, for instance, is only nominally a landscape, in that it captures a stretch of stony wall at the edge of some woods, with a hint of country road and the suggestion of a building in the distance. Yet the image exerts a hold way out of proportion to its content.

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

This is even truer of what I think is this show's masterpiece: a large tempera from 1947 called Hoffman's Slough. Again, there is a landscape of sorts, a sweeping expanse of swampy countryside painted in rich, varied earth tones with black-and-white highlights. It was only after staring intently at it that I picked up on the two tiny buildings in the distance at the top of the image, the wispy dirt road in the upper left corner, a few blades of grass in the foreground.

The representational details seem added almost as an afterthought. But there's no question that Wyeth knew what he was after, and that he got it. He also said: "If I can get beyond the subject to the object, then it has a deeper meaning."

I'm hesitant to confess relative indifference to Wyeth's portraiture and even to most of his scenes of farm life -- the amazing Cooling Shed is an exception -- especially given the catalog introduction by the museum's executive director, George S. Bolge, who makes anything other than passion for Wyeth sound almost like a moral failing. He mentions Wyeth's "small share of detractors" at one show, calling "their scowls and smirks badges of their contempt, their shrugged comments, jarring little discords in the general melody of praise."

Then again, Bolge is skeptical of those who grovel at Wyeth "when they should simply have looked. Looking openly, they might have been able to decide if they liked any well enough to hope for further encounters." Despite some reservations about Wyeth, this encounter makes me hope for another.

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