The death of Andrew Wyeth today has reminded me of a story…
I met Wyeth only once. In the mid-1980s I was working as the curator of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Early one summer the ladies at the Museum’s reception desk fluttered into my office, whispering that Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie were in the galleries. Everyone in the building found some excuse to pass through the galleries and say hello. I too walked out and introduced myself. Jamie was smiling and gregarious, easy with a handshake, but Andrew held back, obviously uncomfortable with the attention. I offered to take them through an exhibition I had organized of contemporary Maine art. Although none of the work was sympathetic to the Wyeths’ style of realism, Andrew gave each painting a careful look. One picture absolutely delighted him. It was a large surrealist composition with floating tables and chairs and photographs seemingly taped to the canvas. The photographs and tape were actually painted illusions, but Wyeth wouldn’t believe it. Waiting until I was distracted in conversation with Jamie, he sneaked up to the painting and quietly tried to pick the tape off the canvas with his fingernail. “Well, good damn!” he giggled, amazed at being tricked. It was the unguarded giggle of child and startled me. I turned towards him. Seeing he was caught, he lowered his eyes and stepped back from the painting. Of course, I should have sent him to sit in the corner for time-out. But he was Andrew Wyeth.
Many people, including Wyeth’s biographer, have noted the man-child dimension of the artist’s personality. Sheltered and at times suffocated by his family, he never fully grew up. Imaginatively, he remained an adolescent, frightened by death and loss, rattled by sex, and compelled towards the outlaw and outcast edges of society. I would argue that it is Wyeth’s peculiar “immaturity” of vision that gives his paintings that memorable jolt and separates Wyeth from his legion of weak imitators.
That said, when I am in the Museum’s galleries, standing in front of that magnificent trio of Wyeth paintings–Weatherside, Winter 1946 and Sea Dog–I still find it hard to reconcile their stark and troubling seriousness with my memory of that giddy gray-haired kid who just had to scratch a painting.
Andrew Wyeth’s Weatherside, Winter 1946 and Sea Dog are currently on view, side-by-side, in the Modern Gallery.