But familiarity breeds contempt. Such is the case with Mr. Wyeth. His realism flew in the face of the Modernist movements that were desperately seeking validation and acceptance within the American art establishment of the mid-twentieth century. Modernism had moved past representation and that, after all, was Wyeth’s chosen style. He was to some another version of his father, N.C. Wyeth—merely an illustrator.
It is almost unimaginable that Wyeth’s widely recognized image, Christina’s World, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). MOMA is the great white cube; the quintessential home for elite art. It stands for the epitome of high art and is the repository of the iconic images of the twentieth century. Granted, when the museum acquired the work, Surrealism was just making inroads to the U.S. and Abstract Expressionism’s New York School was not yet the loose grouping of tendencies and persons that it would eventually become. Today, MOMA is nearly embarrassed to own the work, yet it is one of only a small number of pieces—Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is another—that the majority of visitors readily recognize and want to see on their tour of the galleries.
This iconic status is somewhat of a black-eye for the art establishment. One would be ridiculed in certain circles for having any affection for Wyeth’s work. It is seen as a sign of an undeveloped aesthetic sensibility. It might even be consider facile, sentimental, or nostalgic.
The artist is difficult to place within the timeline of Modern Art History and is summarily deleted from many art history texts. His work isn’t even placed alongside Regionalist artists such as Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. And so he floats around as a recognized figure, both praised and dismissed.
Wyeth’s own behavior in the art world has damaged his reputation within that sphere, to be fair. We may never know exactly what happened during the Helga Hullabaloo of the 1980s. When the nearly 250 works—many of them nude—representing Wyeth’s neighbor Helga Testorf were exhibited, there were rumors of an affair between artist and model. This only added to the hype generated from the sale of the entire suite of paintings and drawings to a single collector for the amount of $6 million. The collector later sold the works for over $40 million, total. The affair may or may not have taken place, and Wyeth’s wife may or may not have known, but the Wyeth’s did gain both a substantial income and increased notoriety at the time.
Aside from all this, why is Wyeth’s realism so appalling to the contemporary critics? I expect we will never know for certain. No one can bring serious accusation against his technique. At a time when practically no American artist used the early renaissance medium of egg tempera (though Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker soon took it on within their own particular form of Magic Realism), Wyeth was creating some of his best known works with the archaic medium. Dry brush, another obscure technique utilizing watercolor, was Wyeth’s other medium of choice. Among his contemporaries Wyeth had no equal when it came to his facility with these mediums.
My hunch is that Wyeth’s subject matter is equally as problematic as his realism for some of his critics. His landscapes and portraits lack obvious evidence of critical theory and exploration of newer modes of art making. But this is on a first glance. The images seem familiar but these are not simple portraits and they are not typically commissioned portraits. Wyeth chose his subjects, not the other way around. The landscapes and figures epitomized the artist’s keen sense of the laborious life of the common person. His paintings are peopled with characters that, like their ancestors, struggled for generations to sustain life on unforgiving plots of land. That conflict is reflected in their eyes and written on their faces. In that reflection the average viewer sees herself.
While the specific struggles of these figures may not be those of the average Manhattanite, let alone the contemporary art historian, the basic strains of life remain the same. It may come down to class conflict. The critics believing that the unenlightened masses can enjoy nothing but simple representational art, while their own sensibilities have far surpassed that lowest common denominator. That would truly be unfair. Enjoying and appreciating certain Modern and contemporary works may be contingent upon the viewer being educated in the contemporary idiom, but it does not mean that traditional formats and techniques are inferior.
New art does not negate the significance of work from the past. There is no set number of masterpieces that requires one work to lose that distinction if a new work is conferred with the title. And the pluralism of the 60s, 70s, and 80s actually gave rise to sub-movements like Photorealism. If these works could be honestly assessed by art critics why could Wyeth not receive the same treatment?
I think all can agree that we have, at the very least, lost a master craftsman. Perhaps one day Wyeth will be re-evaluated in a more favorable way. For now, I will be one of those who claims that Andrew Wyeth and Damien Hirst actually have sought to answer (or at least ask) some of the same looming questions of life with their work. There is room for both at the table, if we only allow them.