Out and About: Wyeth’s worlds

Wyeth

Spring Fed, 1967, private collection © Andrew Wyeth

As well as being one of the most celebrated artists in America, Andrew Wyeth, now 88 years old, is one of our own, a Chester County native who still calls Chadds Ford home. For that reason alone, a major exhibit of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art stirs a certain amount of interest.

 
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And whether or not you are drawn to Wyeth’s precise realism—plenty find it too dry and genteel—this show is worth scheduling a long lunch hour for, or leaving the office a little early one day. Go on the weekend if you must, but as with any blockbuster, weekdays are a saner option if you want to get close to the paintings and hear yourself think. Besides, the museum is less than 10 minutes from campus by car, making it an easy midday outing.

Even midweek you’re not likely to find yourself alone. Wyeth’s appeal is such that a steady stream of visitors is willing to pay the $20 admission fee ($15 for the 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. slots Tuesday through Friday) to file past such well-known favorites as Winter, 1946, Braids and Maga’s Daughter. Part of this exhibit’s appeal lies in the opportunity to delve into the “backstory” of some of the artist’s iconic images, through well conceived labels and a “complimentary” audio tour.

That’s where you’ll hear how Groundhog Day began life as a portrait of Wyeth’s Chadds Ford neighbor Karl Kuerner. At one point, both the farmer and his feisty German Shepherd, Nell, were to have been included in a teatime scene in the kitchen of Kuerner’s farmhouse. Gradually, as Wyeth contemplated the painting, he realized he could best evoke Kuerner and his farm by eliminating him altogether. Out came Kuerner, out came the hound and out came every other detail save the table, a solitary place setting and a window. Beyond the pane we see a barbed wire fence and a jagged log encircled by a chain. What gives the painting emotional power—and what makes Wyeth’s minimalism at times so successful—is the stunning contrast between the cozy kitchen and the hint of menace in the winter landscape outside.

This was by no means the only time Wyeth “erased” a subject from a portrait. The same happened when he set out to capture his friend Walt Anderson, a roguish lobsterman in Maine who lived on the fringes of polite society. After many attempts, shown in preparatory sketches, to paint his friend, Wyeth returned again and again to Anderson’s worn-out boots. Those are all that remains in the final painting. Among all the “non portraits,” we’re all also treated to several arresting paintings of people. Though Wyeth has been criticized as a sentimental realist, it’s hard to remain unmoved in front of a painting such as Braids. Yes, he shows a virtuoso’s command of the age-old tempera technique, but what personal empathy he shows for his model—the Prussian-born Helga Testorf—and how closely we feel her presence!

It’s in the paintings of objects, though, that Wyeth is most consistently triumphant. His barn doors and milk pails, restrained and understated as they are, painted in his characteristically truncated palette of browns and creams and grays, speak volumes about the power of place and the meanings we invest in familiar objects. Wyeth’s world, on the face of it so bluntly literal, is replete with symbolism, memories and half-remembered dreams so personal and intimate to the painter we will never know the full story.

Nor do we need to. Instead we can marvel at the magic of his mastery, where every blade of grass, every hair on a dog’s muzzle, is offered up for our delighted gaze. And we can take a while to let the introspective mood of Wyeth’s work lead us to those half-conscious places in our minds we too rarely make time to visit.

“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic” is on exhibit through July 16 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For more information, go to www.philamuseum.org or call 215-763-8100.

Originally published on April 27, 2006