Jamie Wyeth Fans Brave The Cold To See A Major Retrospective
February has been described as the fourth coldest February since 1894. March hasn’t been much of a transition, especially with the snow, although that could change in this age of fluctuating temperatures.
The good news is that you have to April (“the cruelest month”) to see what has been billed as the most comprehensive survey of Jamie Wyeth’s art ever to be assembled (April 5th to be exact. ) Your best guide could be Wyeth’s niece, Victoria Browning Wyeth, who plans a talk, “Wyeth on Wyeth: A Family Perspective,” on March 13 and 19. (Details are below).
Ironically, the cold weather has even affected the retrospective; for nine days in mid-February, officials at the Brandywine River Museum removed several of the paintings, fearing that condensation on some of the cold outer walls might cause dampness to seep into the paintings.
One of the removed paintings –a portrait of Wyeth’s yellow Labrador with a black circle around his eye and titled “Kleberg” –happens to be the cover image on the exhibit catalogue. It is also found on publicity information and on the poster that greets visitors at the museum. I am sure it was used at the first venue, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“Kleberg” is a compelling image and might even recall a similarly marked dog in “Little Rascals” if it didn’t have that Wyeth signature “wondrous strange,” to use a phrase from a 1998 catalogue on the Wyeth artistic legacy. I mention it not because the painting was in any real danger but because the museum obviously thought it was classic example of what draws Wyeth fans.
Actually, instead of the artist’s beloved lab (described as the “late” Kleberg) the museum could have easily used the image of the 600-pound pig named “Den Den.” That image is as routinely linked to Jamie Wyeth as the portrait of the lone, crawling figure in “Christina's World” is to his father, the late Andrew Wyeth.
Critics generally view the artistic vision of Jamie Wyeth (born 1946) as unique and what one critic called “separate from the context of his family,” meaning both his father and his famous grandfather, N.C.Wyeth.
Ironically, the younger Wyeth may be one of the most accessible artists of contemporary fame – how can you not lap up an image like Kleberg – and yet he has never really been on the proverbial radar screen of the general public not to mention art historians and collectors.
That is until now. The retrospective was five years in the planning and represents the artistic career of Wyeth over the course of six decades. It’s enough for me to want to queue “Nick of Time” by another Boomer, Bonnie Raitt.
If you can’t get a bead on Wyeth’s originality and extreme productivity after seeing this retrospective of more than a 100 works, than maybe you are more interested in something else.
I for one was fascinated with what I see as Wyeth’s 19th-century mindset. Like his artistic mentor, Rockwell Kent, Wyeth sees his career as a series of preoccupations or, as he openly admits, “obsessions.”
No doubt Wyeth has been channeling Kent since he was 17, when he bought a house perched on a sea cliff on Monhegan Island and discovered it had belonged to Kent.
Kent can be described in a hyphenated way as a painter-printmaker-illustrator-writer but he also had a hand in designing everything from furniture and china to jewelry and even wrapping paper.
So don’t be shocked if you are looking for Wyeth’s striking portraits of Jack Russell terriers (note how the medium of watercolor and gouache is perfectly suited for capturing the breed’s wiry coat) and discover something completely different.
How about close-up of a gull in a roiling surf with a handmade frame painstakingly made of hundreds of seashells? During a private tour at the museum, Wyeth spoke of the work as though he had been working on a jigsaw puzzle. “Not much goes on when you’re on the Island,” he said, apparently joking.
Wyeth referred to another time-consuming project – creating two scale models, “one-sixth to life scale,” of rooms in New York City – as “tableaux vivants” but he didn’t seem to mind that the 2013 works were called “doll houses.” They depict the famed restaurant, La Cote Basque, and the dining room of Andy Warhol's Manhattan townhome.
In fact, he said that he didn’t even know that pieces would be included in the retrospective though he was glad they were. He had initially thought of them, he said, as a kind of “artist tool” that were serve as working models to sketch from. Then he went onto to paint and sculpt every detail including one "tableaux" with a miniature parquet floor
The idea was to discover what the museum called “another dimension of the imaginative worlds that inspire him" - in this case a time in New York when he was part of the anything-goes artistic world of Warhol’s “Factory.” Actually (full disclosure), I am the one who called them “doll houses” but that only caused Wyeth to grin like an Jack 'O Lantern (“My head’s looking more like a pumpkin each day,” he said at one point) and recall that Warhol was a “child-like” figure who insisted Wyeth tag along and visit all the toy stores of New York.
In person, Wyeth is witty and self-effacing, given to wearing the kind of eccentric garb that his father favored. ( I have seen the late Andrew Wyeth in buckled shoes, a fur coat, and the kind of slippers a deep sea diver might wear). Not that it’s a family trait, but clothes play a historic role with the Wyeths – whether it’s a green boiled wool jacket belonging to Helga or N.C. Wyeth’s costume collection. It is interesting that Wyeth chose to paint himself, at the age of 23, bare-chested, as though he might be at the beach only he is shown against a classically muted background. Another self-portrait, submitted in 1972 as part of a requirement to enter the National Academy of Design, was promptly rejected. It shows Wyeth wearing an old-fashioned greatcoat with a pumpkin for a head.
Asked about 2005 oil, “The Children’s Illustrator,” which depict his grandfather’s studio (later occupied by his aunt Carolyn), Wyeth said, “That studio has always had amazing affect on me. As a child, I would spend days there. And all that time it was full of costumes, busts and children’s illustrations. Then I would go back to my father’s studio and he would be painting a dead bird.” Again, Wyeth spoke in the mock tones of someone who grew up with a famous father and who has spent decades explaining away, in upbeat terms, the family’s eccentricities.
Wyeth also told a story about one of his many “bird” paintings – the 1980 oil, “Raven.” While visiting Alaska, he was asked to speak to a group of Inuits and discovered that they considered ravens “sacred” animals. “Apparently they believe that their dead relatives may come back in the form of a raven,” Wyeth said. That discussion prompted a museum staff member to point out a tiny reflection of a figure in the raven’s eye in the painting, noting that a little boy once asked Wyeth if that was a self-portrait. “Yes, I believe it is, “ Wyeth said with a laugh.
A few paintings, and few minutes later, Wyeth was deep into a discussion about how he works by a process of elimination – not all paintings but especially a series of works depicting figures shown walking along a sea cliff. He explained that his father was a master of removing figures or objects from a work until it was the essence of a certain emotion. “My father always thought that ‘Christina’s World’ would have been better without Christina in it,” Wyeth said with a chuckle.
As part of small group of admiring reporters who showed up to interview Wyeth at the museum at the appointed time (along with Paul Seaton, a photographer visiting from Santa Fe, whose photos are shown here), I expected a requisite press conference where Wyeth would answer questions one at the time. Fortunately, it was a free-ranging encounter and it took place in the exhibit areas where paintings were arranged in chronological order. Visitors will find that the labels typically explain the works Wyeth-style: by telling a story about the work’s inception.
Too bad I didn’t think to ask him about a 2007 work with a label that reveals an unorthodox mix of “acrylic, oil, and watercolor on cardboard.” Still, the title (and accompanying panel) reveals that the portrait of Andy Warhol was a group effort: “A.W. Working On The Piss Series.”
And you’ll just have to read about a series called “untoward occurrences on Monhegan Island” which Wyeth says he will continue in the future. One of the works is owned by the novelist Steven King and even earned a recent entry describing Kent’s life in Wikipedia.
A portrait of Kent looking straight towards the viewer might be seen as another example of Wyeth’s part illustrative and part observational painting style. Only if you look over Kent’s shoulder, you’ll see a tiny figure falling off a snowy cliff.
That reminds me to give some advice: bring a friend to this art affair. You’ll want to discuss the “wow-factor” with someone.
Victoria Browning Wyeth’s presentation, on March 19 is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. The cost is $20 for members of the museum and $25 for non-members. Seats are limited and likely to sell out. Tickets are available online, by phone at 610-388-8326, or at the museum.
For more information, visit www.brandywinemuseum.org/calendar_events.html.
"Jamie Wyeth" will be on display at the Brandywine River Museum through April 5. Located on Route 1 in Chadds Ford, the museum is open daily (except Christmas) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. General admission is $15, adults; $10 seniors (65+); $6, students with ID and children ages 6-12. Free for children ages 5 and under as well as conservancy members.