This weekend I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to see the Jamie Wyeth show. I had thought of skipping it, but my five year old wanted to see the picture of the dog that’s used in the show’s advertising.
I knew a fair amount about Jamie Wyeth already. He’s not that well-known outside of the Philadelphia area, but he represents the third generation of an artistic family, the most highly thought of probably being his father, Andrew Wyeth, whose painting, Christina’s World, is held by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. If you live in Philadelphia, every now and then you’ll read a story about the Wyeth family. I remember reading one as a kid, possibly in a magazine aimed at students. Jamie Wyeth’s most famous paintings are probably his posthumous portrait of President Kennedy and a painting of his wife driving a pony cart into the woods, but he’s not as well-known or well-regarded as his father, and both of them paint in a realist style that is not at all the fashion in the art world generally.
It was a little surprising that the MFA would do a show about him. Jamie Wyeth does not seem to have a significant presence in the nation’s major art museums. The curator does do a good job explaining why she thinks the show is significant, though, and I ended up wondering whether my sense that Wyeth is “minor,” at best, was misguided and snobbish.
Why is he taken less seriously than, say, Keith Hockney (who had a much bigger show at the MFA a year or two back)? Superficially, Hockney was a part of a big London art scene—as can be seen from his paintings—and to judge from his, Wyeth wasn’t. He was friends with Warhol in the 1970s, and maybe acquainted with Nureyev, but the only other painters he references in his work are his father and grandfather, Thomas Eakins (another Philadelphian), and Edward Hopper (who, like the Wyeths, lived some of the time in Maine). Aesthetically, Hockney is more adventurous with style and color than Wyeth is—but Hockney’s colors seem very English to me, and are his realist paintings all that different than Wyeth’s are? It seems possible to compare them with late Hopper, too, and I’m not quite sure why Hockney’s are the better regarded, unless the assumption that Hopper was old-fashioned seemed so obvious that it didn’t need to be examined. Then again, stylistically, Jamie Wyeth is no Edward Hopper. Wyeth doesn’t shock the viewer with spare or unusual composition the way Hopper did. Hockney’s paintings are more thoughtful than Wyeth’s, and Wyeth’s are more emotional.
The show opens with the dog painting, some early work, a couple of paintings inspired by the space program, and the Kennedys. The next room is given over to portraits of famous people of the 1970s (there is a large nude of Rudolf Nureyev facing the entrance): Nureyev, Warhol, Lincoln Kirstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Beyond these, Wyeth’s paintings are vivid, sometimes painterly, sometimes photorealist, depictions of nature, and occasionally of people in nature. The subjects are often clearly deeply felt—as much as a painting of a rooster or a hay bale can be deeply felt—but not especially original. There’s very little that can offend, and very little that a buyer might not want hanging over the mantelpiece. Wyeth is no Expressionist. Thinking about the show later I thought I really should read Sontag’s essay on photography. On the other hand, the paintings aren’t in any of the usual styles possessed by graduates of university art programs or conservatories. The artist’s friendship with Warhol notwithstanding, Wyeth doesn’t attempt anything like Pop Art (his homage to Warhol’s painting of Kellogg’s Cornflakes, a photorealist depiction of a rooster standing in front of a generic cornflake box, reads as square, a friendly rejection of everything Warhol stands for).
Personally, I liked the paintings of the Brandywine River area, near Philadelphia. They reminded me of the woods near where I grew up. I’m not sure why the trees and things in New England feel so different from the ones in Pennsylvania—not so very far away, really—a lot more evergreens, for one thing, but that’s not really it. They made me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Bucks County, for some reason: one painting, in particular, a nearly black-and-white view of some woods and a barn from the roof of another building, apparently more in the style of Andrew Wyeth, the artist’s father, and done when he was thirteen years old. Depictions of the artist’s wife, who is disabled and who’s often depicted driving horses (as she can no longer ride), and of neighbors and friends, are often very touching.
There were several paintings of woods and fields without any living thing. The curator’s cards indicated that these have great significance for the artist, and hinted at a philosophy in which inanimate objects are imbued with spiritual meaning. These paintings were often very beautiful, but they seemed to be about the fact that the painter felt deeply about them, rather than conveying the feeling itself. A few paintings veered toward a perhaps discomfiting intensity, but for the most part they are popular and staid.
It may seem strange to call Wyeth’s paintings “popular,” when the visitor to this show is repeatedly confronted with the painter’s equestrienne wife, his beautiful homes, and the beautiful people (occasionally of the working class, admittedly) who are his friends. At times the subjects of his paintings seem like characters in a Whit Stillman film, or in The Secret History. They do beautiful things—ride horses, watch the light change in the woods, have parties in restaurants, sometimes paint—and they are beautiful people. Wyeth captures their own confrontation with nature, but without really individuating them, or setting them in the world. There’s none of Hopper’s interest in the city and the people who live in it, none of Eakins’s interest in the human form while it’s actually doing something other than looking pretty, none of Hockney’s in what it’s like to live in a social world. This isn’t painting by or for “regular” people—who are more likely to paint like Hockney or Warhol—but deeply backward-looking, in terms of style, and inward-looking, in terms of content. The inwardness itself is old-fashioned, and apparently deliberately so. But if the artist is invested in his being especially sensitive to nature, it does seem precious to project the same sensitivity onto wealthy people of no artistic talent who are going about their quotidian lives.
Admittedly, there’s nothing greeting card-ish about the 10-foot high raven or the enormous inverted jack-o’-lanterns sailing overhead to be dashed on the rocks below. Some of the paintings transcend the curator-card potted explanations they’ve been saddled with. And it’s impossible to say whether a style that seems almost ridiculously old-fashioned now will still be a handicap in a hundred years.