Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Re Printing the Wyeth Family (II)

Next week's piece will look at jazz greats JR Monterose and Tommy Flanagan, but first I decided to revisit the Wyeth family (see most recent post below). Last time, I tried to position each illustration where it would be clear as to subject or artist, but chose to say nothing explanatory. So I thought it would be useful here to look briefly at one or two specific works by each artist, taking them in no particular order.

N.C., or "Pa" as he was known to all, illustrated hundreds of books and magazine pieces, plus calendars, posters, and ads. He was a professional working illustrator, in other words, and as such most of his paintings were, let's say, site specific--powerful or lovely, a frozen moment or a dramatic highlight. The Passing of Robin Hood is an example combining all those elements. Based on one folk tale about the mythic outlaw, we see the dying archer in his last moments, propped up by two of his men, about to shoot his final arrow, meant (as I recall it) to locate the place he would be buried. The pale room with window showing hill and sky outside (the life and freedom he'll enjoy no more), the anguished poses, pale-as-death Robin in silhouette, the sense of his fumbling frustration versus engrained bow skills, all are present. You could say that N.C.'s painting hits its target.

But the story continues decades later when son Andrew chose to paint a scene partly in homage to his father, silently echoing both the death painting and N.C.'s lovely fine-arts masterpiece The Springhouse (see it reproduced in the first post). Even if a totally different building--this one on the Kuerners' farm in Chadds Ford--Andy's Spring Fed can be interpreted as a reverse, inside-looking-out view from within Pa's famous structure. The water is full to overflowing (possibly the life draining from N.C.?) and a viewer can almost hear it drip; the cows outside are restless; the detail and subdued colors of the egg tempura surface seem slightly unsettling; and that helmet-like bucket and wire dangling down at right are, according to Andy in an interview I read somewhere long ago, his subconscious references to the pose and arrow of N.C.'s Robin Hood scene. Whether a viewer sees any of that or not, the painting serves as a potent example of the memories and behind-the-scene details at work every time Andrew picks up a brush. (Another example shows up later in this piece.)

Eldest child Henriette made her reputation fashioning portraits (her father, her husband Peter Hurd, various Wyeth and Hurd relations, Helen Hayes, Pat Nixon, some wealthy patrons), but she chose to focus for pleasure on flowers and other studio-interior still lifes. Some early works were fantasies bathed in what she called "the artifice of blue light," but New Mexico's desert light and the ranching life made her more of a realist, content to paint smaller subjects and run the household and husband and three children and generally be, as she said, "the power behind the throne." Still, the Santa Fe Opera, for one, used lush paintings of hers, like Puff Ball and Still Life with Irises, for their annual opera-season posters for many years.

Hurd himself was one of N.C.'s earliest live-in students, and he quickly endeared himself to the family and then in 1929 won the beautiful, outspoken daughter--even persuading her eventually to move to the San Patricio area near Ruidoso. Peter painted desert, cowboy, and ranch scenes mostly, with the odd portrait now and again (including one of Lyndon Johnson which the President rejected). Full of sunlight and dust and action moments, Hurd's landscapes and hills are distant and enveloping simultaneously; they seem a bit Western rough, sort of improvised I suppose, yet are actually polished works done in egg tempera, like A Shower in a Dry Year and The Gate and Beyond shown here.

It was Hurd, in fact, who introduced the tempera medium to the Wyeths, but Andrew soon became the acknowledged master of that delicate, demanding method for creating a picture--using egg yolks at first, laying a ground, building up a surface, adding ground-in colors, scratching-in some strokes and painting others. Andy would eventually employ knife or brush or pencil or... well, any device that came to hand at the right moment. Though few artists have the hand skills to fashion such gorgeous detail in tempera (as here in the amazing Pentecost), for Andrew it was merely learned technique, however brilliant. What made his works distinct from others was his total involvement in the scene before him, on the one hand, and his immersion at the same time in memory, and history, and death, and occasionally the romance not of love but of something like medieval geste. An observer could say he turned exteriors into disguised mental interiors--a mis-identified "realist" painter with no real allegiance to the factual details of an object or scene.

One haunting example is the portrait simply titled Adam, the last of several studies made of laborer Adam Johnson. The painter brought distant crows and tumbledown shed and silver bucket and blue-jacketed black man together because that's how his eye wanted to see them. Andrew proudly said later that "Adam told a reporter one of the finest things I have ever heard said about me: 'Andy--he's got the glory of painting and I got the glory of cuttin' grass, and we ain't gonna get nothing else.'"

Scenes as commonplace and localized as grasscutting were the main inspiration for daughter Carolyn. Early on she engaged the world, albeit hesitantly, but a failed relationship returned her to the Wyeth's Chadds Ford home, and she became the cranky, reclusive spinster aunt (although she stayed close to Andy and then his son Jamie too). She painted barns and chicken houses, big buckets and small Mason jars hidden under benches; and her single most reprinted work seems to be the unsettling brown-tones image titled Up from the Woods, with a very sexual split treetrunk in the dark foreground and the Wyeth house as a small bright bit of background--the finished work slightly primitive, strangely powerful, serenely Freudian.

Another outsider welcomed into the family was John McCoy, who married daughter Ann and studied for a short time with N.C. He learned to work in watercolor and some tempera, like the various Wyeths, but was dissatisfied. He then broke ranks and found his own mixed media style, and though he commuted back and forth between Maine and Chadds Ford like his in-laws, he eventually focussed most completely on Maine seacoast scenes; misty and moody, subdued trees with dabs of wildflower color, or swirling clouds and gulls, and full-action, splashing waves. But I offer his two very different works Wawenock Hotel and Milkweed Seed. (For splashing action, see The Ledge, placed at the head of this piece).

Finally we come to the other Maine-stay Wyeth: James Browning, son of Andrew and Betsy, still typically known as Jamie. Trained by Carolyn and his father, Jamie's commissioned portraiture work started when he still a teenager, and he produced famous ones of Warhol and Nureyev, JFK and other Kennedys. But over the years he has come to focus more--in a looser and slightly comical style--on pigs and pumpkins (including At Sea, just above), chickens and dogs and lighthouses, slightly strange locals and even stranger tourists. Jamie lives on Monhegan Island, and an amusing photo shows him holed up in a plywood crate with one wall missing, where he can sit and sketch and not have strangers peering over his shoulder. (Islanders help him move the mini-studio from place to place each day.)

The painter's self-portrait reiterates his pumpkin fascination. Less bleak, more forgiving, more fun, Jamie has proved to be the designated inheritor and worthy replacement for his father and the other Wyeth family painters, all of them dead now; and one can only hope that grandpa N.C. is looking down from on high, and laughing--just as robust as he ever was.

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