January 19, 2009
The historic events of the coming week may overshadow a passage in American culture that is no less significant. The death of Andrew Wyeth brought back debates about American art that have raged since his first exhibitions more than half a century ago–the question of what constitutes a modern artist in this country. Wyeth stood in the shadow of a great illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth, who helped to perpetuate in the 20th century the narrative realism that has sustained painting since colonial times in the new world. He fulfilled his father’s dream that a “serious” artist might emerge from the family, yet constantly had to answer for his popularity with the public when other “serious” painters were virtually ignored (except by avant garde critics and a handful of cognoscenti). Wyeth’s best work is modern in the best sense of the word–fresh in spirit and intimately connected with the psychological and social climate of the contemporary world. Moreover, his art was quintessentially American, redolent of the myths and cultural themes that defined this nation as it grew and matured during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Among the powerful subjects and recurring motifs in his art, Wyeth painted figures in the landscape with rare grace. His pictures capture the pioneer spirit, the anxiety of modern existence, the vast emptiness of America’s rural tracts, the hardbitten stoicism of farm life, and the brutal beauty of the sea, among other themes. It is difficult to imagine American art without his haunting images of rural life in Maine and the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. Like all great art, his work defies categorization, so why worry about his modernity now that he is gone?