Why Wyeth?

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.

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.

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.

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.