Saltz: Andrew Wyeth, a Particular Kind of American

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"Just take a deep breath ... no, I haven't seen your Whole Foods bag anywhere." Photo: Getty Images

Andrew Wyeth, the most famous American painter that almost no one in the art world ever thought of or cared much about, died in his sleep, in his home near Philadelphia, at the age of 91. Known for his sketchy, dry, goldenrod-and-ochre-colored scenes of working farms, rundown sawmills, nature studies, working people, military garb, and rustic interiors — he was very good at depicting peeling paint and rotting wood — Wyeth, who was the son of the well-known illustrator N.C. Wyeth, is responsible for one of the most recognized and beloved American paintings of the early twentieth century, “Christina’s World.”

Painted in 1948, the work was a stroke of luck and delayed memory. One day, as Wyeth happened to look out his upstairs window, he saw his next-door neighbor — a young woman named Christina Olsen, whom he had been painting for some time — crawling across a field of wheat. Christiana had had polio as a child. Later, Wyeth made sketches of the Olsen house, added a field surrounding it, and, as an afterthought, inserted Christina in a pink dress in the foreground. Out of nowhere an American had created a one-painting version of conservative surrealism, a painting with what felt like American values, but that was riddled with mystery and something unknowable. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art purchased the picture. Today, “Christina’s World” is a tourist destination, a picture people puzzle over and love.

Yet while Wyeth has been a mainstay of poster sales and coffee-table books, the art world has viewed him as little more than a glorified illustrator. Indeed, in over three decades in the art world, I have never heard one artist, art student, teacher, critic, collector, or curator mention his name. Wyeth has been a nonentity, except insofar as he’s known as “The guy who painted that yellow picture of that woman in the wheat field.”

In the eighties that almost changed, when Wyeth released what became known as the “Helga” paintings. All of a sudden he was being talked about everywhere. The images, many of them nudes, depicted a neighbor of Wyeth’s, Helga Testorf. Made over a period of around fifteen years, the pictures somehow became the subject of media scrutiny. For a moment the whole country turned into a small town, as people speculated about whether or not the married Wyeth had had an affair with his younger neighbor. The pictures themselves are standard watercolors, sketches, and paintings; mostly they have the look of the illustrations that were in the Joy of Sex book. The work is realist, with dashes of brushiness and wisps of flat shadow. In one of the books published to accompany the series, there are gnomic quotes from Wyeth next to some of the images. Next to one watercolor of the statuesque Helga standing in a doorway, Wyeth records, “… I became entranced with the light splashing all over her body.” One is tempted to think, “I bet you were,” when you notice the way he fetishizes her Viking-like braid resting on her pendulous breasts.

Although Wyeth came of age at the exact same time as the Abstract Expressionists, he was always a conservative, someone who seemed either unaware or uninterested in all things avant-garde. But while the art world looked the other way, Wyeth was hosted by Richard Nixon at the White House, and his Helga paintings were shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Still, Wyeth was considered so conservative that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined an offer to exhibit his work. (Interestingly, however, one of his sons, Jamie, made the avant-garde grade when he collaborated for a time with Andy Warhol.) In 2007, the current President Bush presented Wyeth with the National Medal of the Arts.

Regardless of how he has been viewed by the art world, Wyeth is not a lost cause, or merely conservative. He worked constantly, depicting the world with a certain coolness that feels modern, and he cast his scenes in a light that feels very photographic, and therefore timely. Someday Wyeth may enjoy his time in the art-world sun. In the meantime, we can see him as a very particular strain of American: As intellectually independent as he was stylistically conservative, a family man with a streak of cruelty, a son with something to prove, and possessing a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude of “I did it my way.”