I went to see this exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum yesterday, and it was a beautifully done show. Well arranged and documented with a spread of works across Wyeth's career. I learned more about him, which made me want to know even more. I had loved the Helga exhibition years ago but hadn't seen much more of his work in person. It truly repays up-close examination, with the minuteness of his brushstrokes. The thing that truly struck me was the radical nature of some of his compositions and viewpoints. It's easy, in this age of minimalizing realism, to discount Wyeth as the safe art of dorm room posters. That would be a mistake. Many of the strongest pieces had truly unexpected and dramatic viewpoints or compositions, the kind that make you reconsider how you see the world.
Below is one of those. I loved the almost absence of sky with the strong abstract nature of the land and the water it held. The layers of darkness and detail in this piece are far greater than I could capture with a brush pen standing up in a crowd and balancing sketchbook and watercolor kit in my left hand. But I wanted to spend a little time with it and look more deeply, and sketching a painting helps me do that.
The piece I was most gobsmacked by was the top one here of the home with drifting feathers. It struck me as Wyeth's version of Redon's drifting flowers or Chagall's pair of lovers in the sky. Mysticism within the artist's own recognizable language. I've been drawn to the surrealists the last couple of years, but without much idea how to make that work within my own vocabulary. This piece really stayed with me, and I hope it will help me see a new way to do this in my own work.
The show was a mixed bag for me. The best were transporting, with the exquisiteness of texture and detail adding to the subject. Some, however, I found to be lifeless, drained by the too painstaking style. The watercolors, with a bit more freedom, were more successful to my eye than the tempera ones (to make a broad generalization). There were several early and loose watercolors in the show that took my breath away. I loved his color and style, and they reminded me of the looseness and lushness of Sargent's watercolors. Apparently Wyeth, in spite of a huge success with them in New York, found them to be insufficiently challenging to make a career of, and he moved to the much more detailed style instead. That grieved me a bit, but it was also heartening to see a realist making a successful career in the midst of an abstract age.
Landscape painting gets little respect these days, and while he painting many people as well, I loved seeing how he took his home landscape, unremarkable by the standards of dramatic landscape beauty that seems so common in art, and translated his love of his place and his vision of the earth to others. It was encouraging to see him make such a respected career out of the bones of his home spaces. Coming as I do from a visually unremarkable but much loved place of my own, I always hope to be able to translate that beauty for others to see and appreciate.
His wife Betsy helped tremendously on the marketing and selling side of things. Any artist would be lucky to have such a helpmate, since business sense and creativity are not necessarily paired talents, but it was still encouraging to see him be able to be so successful on his own terms.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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