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'Fascinating And Also A Little Bit Uncomfortable': Andrew Wyeth At 100

Artist Andrew Wyeth — pictured on his property in Chadds Ford, Penn. in 1964 — would have turned 100 in July of 2017.
Bill Ingraham
Artist Andrew Wyeth — pictured on his property in Chadds Ford, Penn. in 1964 — would have turned 100 in July of 2017.

In 1977, nearly 30 years after Andrew Wyeth's most famous painting "Christina's World" was created, critic Robert Rosenblum was asked to name the most overrated and most underrated artists. He put Wyeth in both categories.

"Robert Rosenblum's comment is accurate to a degree but also simplistic," says Michael Komanecki, chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. He's often asked to weigh in on Wyeth. "Andy has been described to me as, 'Oh, the critics treat him so badly.' Well, it's not at all true — he enjoyed a tremendous critical reputation for decades."

Wyeth has certainly enjoyed tremendous commercial success. The Farnsworth has an entire center devoted to the work of Andrew Wyeth, his father N.C. Wyeth and Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth. The museum's collection of Andrew's work shows a range that's broader than the seemingly literal realism of his familiar paintings — with their fine brushwork, muted palette and depictions of his rural neighbors. Here, there are watercolors of coastlines with energetic, impressionistic brushstrokes and a bright palette. These are surprises.

"What do you say about Andrew Wyeth at 100?" Komanecki says. "Well, he had many great moments in a long career. He is, in my estimation, and that of many other people, he's one of America's great craftsman. This man could draw."

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Andrew Wyeth (born July 12, 1917). His "Christina's World" is one of the most iconic American paintings of all time, right alongside "Whistler's Mother" and "American Gothic." The centennial anniversary makes a good occasion to reassess of his work.

Unlike his contemporaries, Wyeth didn't see the work of grand masters in museums at home or abroad. He never studied in New York City; Wyeth was homeschooled by his illustrator father in Pennsylvania. He painted the people he knew there, as well as his neighbors in Maine (where he later had a home).

But the artist's familiarity with his subjects didn't make for warm and fuzzy images. They're cold, distant. Viewer and artist become complicit voyeurs.

"It makes you uneasy, for some particular reason," says Laura Hoptman, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. "There's a kind of niggling perfection that is both fascinating and also a little bit uncomfortable. But at this thing he was the best at it — he was truly a master."

It's at the MoMA where Andrew Wyeth's most famous work is on view. The rural scene depicts a field. An awkward woman in a pink dress, propped up on spindly arms, is seen from behind, gazing at a house and barn in the distance.

It's not in a gallery with other paintings, but in a hallway beside a bank of escalators. Still, "Christina's World" has become a sort of pilgrimage site for fans like Richard Burrow, from Roanoke, Va.

"I've seen many, many pictures of this painting but I've never seen the actual original," Burrow says. "I think she's thinking about leaving, and taking a long look back at home and the life that she is leaving. And I don't know if that's what the artist had in mind or not [laughing]. But it's always been sort of how I felt about it. She's torn about whether to go or stay."

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" depicts a real woman, a neighbor of his in rural Pennsylvania.
Andrew Wyeth / Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" depicts a real woman, a neighbor of his in rural Pennsylvania.

The woman was Anna Christina Olson — she was physically disabled, and Wyeth had seen her crawling across a field. According to the MoMA's Laura Hoptman – she uses Wyeth's term for Olson's disability — the artist was clear about what he wanted to show.

"The Museum of Modern Art, when we buy work by a living artist, we send the living artist a questionnaire," she says. "And we sent Wyeth one, and he was very forthright about the fact that he was painting a person who was horrifically crippled, I think he said, but that he wanted to make sure that this was not a painting specifically about a crippled person — that it was a painting about, in a way about aspiration."

The Museum of Modern Art acquired "Christina's World" in 1948 for what was then a huge sum: $1,800. Farnsworth Art Museum Curator Michael Komancki says Wyeth was creating something different from his peers.

"Andrew Wyeth painted 'Christina's World' and it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art," he says. "Within 12 months of that acquisition, there's an August issue of LIFE magazine with Jackson Pollock on the cover and the feature story is: 'Is Jackson Pollock America's greatest living painter?' Within 12 months. Those two works of art represent the absolute polar opposites of what is happening in American art at that moment."

Maybe that's why "Christina's World" is hanging in a hallway, instead of around the corner in a gallery with the Pollocks.

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Karen Michel