Debating Wyeth

Henry Adams looks at Andrew Wyeth and the debate over his standing as an artist that has restarted in the wake of a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Smithsonian Magazine.


[M]any in the New York art world seized upon the Helga paintings as confirmation of their belief that Wyeth was more cultural phenomenon than serious artist. Even today, when realism has come back in vogue, hostility to Wyeth’s work remains unusually personal. Former MoMA curator Robert Storr said in the October 2005 issue of ARTnews that Wyeth’s art is “a very contrived version of what is true about simple Americans….I was born in Maine. I know these people and I know. Nothing about Wyeth is honest. He always goes back to that manicured desolation….He’s so averse to color, to allowing real air—the breath of nature—into his pictures.” In the same article, art critic Dave Hickey called Wyeth’s work “dead as a board.” Defenders are hard put to explain the virulence of the anti-Wyeth attacks. “The criticism doesn’t engage with the work at all,” says curator Knutson. “It is not persuasive.”

The current exhibition, she says, has tried to probe into Wyeth’s creative process by looking at the way he has handled recurrent themes over time. She notes that he tends to paint three subjects: still-life vignettes, vessels (such as empty buckets and baskets), and thresholds (views through windows and mysterious half-opened doors). All three, she says, serve Wyeth as metaphors for the fragility of life. In Wyeth’s paintings, she adds, “you always have the sense that there is something deeper going on. The paintings resonate with his highly personal symbolism.”