I saw the Andrew Wyeth exhibition (Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect) at the Seattle Art Museum a few weeks ago, and I found the artist’s work uncommonly affecting. What is it about his work that’s so profound, you ask? Well…
You know those moments when things feel especially alive? Those moments that overflow with your acute awareness of sensation? Take a moment at a seashore, for example. Your eyes blinded by the wind and the bright sunshine, your toes digging into the rough-smooth sand, your nose reacting to the salty air, wind on your face, the roar of the waves filling your ears. What makes this moment so powerful, I think, is its subjectivity. We are utterly, individualistically immersed in these moments—alone—even if we’re with other people. These moments emphasize the fact that, for all our community, we experience the world alone. Through a distinct, individual perspective.
This is Andrew Wyeth’s specialty. His paintings capture those completely personal moments.
That is my ultimate takeaway from the impressive exhibit. Wyeth gives us something magical in that he shows us something we cannot see under normal circumstances. As intimately as we may know someone, we’re never truly in that person’s skin, experiencing the same things. But Wyeth performs that magic: he puts his viewers in another person’s skin, somehow, which is why his paintings have stuck with me.
Of course, it is that quality combined with other themes that makes Wyeth’s work so powerful. Throughout his work he addresses the body, isolation, memory, and time. Considering these themes and the ways in which they work together provides insights into Wyeth’s body of work. I’d also argue that his deft handling of these themes gets at the very heart of what it means to be an artist.
These themes often collapse on top of one another in a single work, as perhaps most strikingly in the many images he painted of living people who were shown unmoving, lying on their backs, unnervingly corpselike. Black Velvet, for example, shows Helga, one of his favorite models, recumbent and nude. The wall text accompanying this painting says that this painting is “the equivalent of a filmmakers’s long, long, static close-up that arouses all the viewer’s senses.” Helga is strangely inaccessible. Her head is turned away from us, and she hovers in a rich black background that seems both to support her body and to threaten to envelop it. The blackness seems like a metaphor for something: death, isolation, secrecy, fear.
Likewise, Adrift shows a friend of the artist asleep in a rowboat. But without the explanatory text, one might assume that this man had died. He lies unmoving and stiff on his back, his two fists resting on his chest. That he is in a boat only enhances the deathly mood, calling to mind Norse ship burials. As with Black Velvet, this painting is awash with metaphor. The boat and the water seem more alive than the man himself. The boat rocks and sways on the waves, and the vast dark water roils in the distance.
Garret Room is another example of Wyeth’s tendency to depict sleeping people as though dead or dying. In this example he paints one of his favorite models, Tom Clark, napping on a bed. Again, he is on his back and something about the image suggests death or dying, rather than napping. The worn fabric of Clark’s clothes and the quilt beneath him seem to echo the fragility of his thin body. The sloping wall overhead seems to be closing in on him. Whether asleep, dead, or dying, it doesn’t really matter; Wyeth has given us an image of deterioration. Everything in the image seems worn down by time.
Light also plays a significant role in the style and subject of Wyeth’s paintings. The symbolism of light is rather obvious—illumination, truth. But Wyeth’s light also subtly calls attention to its opposite. Indeed this sort of duality is common in Wyeth’s paintings. He pairs opposites, as if to stress that one must exist in order for the other to do so. We see light together with darkness, movement with stillness, openness with confinement, vitality with decay. But Wyeth does not need to explicitly show us something’s opposite for it to come to mind. Such is the alchemy of his work.
For example, his focus on decay and mortality somehow communicates a potent vibrancy. And vice versa. Which brings me back to the issue of subjectivity. Since we can truly inhabit Wyeth’s scenes, we can in turn truly appreciate the degradation of those scenes. The constant slippages and wearing down that are unavoidable parts of the process of living. And since he was a master at alluding to the opposite of what he depicted, we then feel a rush of vitality. The awesome power of what it is to be alive.
Wyeth gives us a view into that reality of life like few other artists do, and for that reason I’d argue that he was one of the most profound artists of the twentieth century. The wall text for one painting quotes Wyeth as saying, “There is motion in Rembrandt—his people turning toward the light…But it’s frozen motion; time is holding its breath for an instant—and for eternity. That’s what I’m after.”
The exhibit was not without flaws. Even though I visited on a Friday morning, the exhibition space was still overcrowded, making it difficult to comfortably spend time with each work. Wyeth is certainly no secret! I was also disappointed that Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World, was absent. Indeed, Christina’s World is so famous that it seems that the curators might have at least addressed its exclusion. It felt a bit like the elephant (not) in the room.
That said, the exhibition lived up to the hype. It was a rare treat to follow the artist’s career trajectory, viewing so many of his paintings side by side. There is so much more I could say about Wyeth and his work, but I’ll stop here. Below I leave you with some images from the show that I found especially striking. Some well known. Others perhaps less so. I hope you see in them what I did.