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Wyeth People

Post #732 • February 16, 2006, 3:29 PM • 17 Comments

This may come as a surprise, but back in the '90s I went through a serious phase of Luddism. It started with reading Thoreau in grad school. From there I went on to read works by the Nearings, Wendell Berry, and other back-to-the-landers. I subscribed to Plain Magazine. I thumbed through rural land reports, with thoughts of buying acreage in Kentucky or Tennessee and starting an organic spice farm. I was going to get some goats, make ricotta, and sell it to supplement my painting income. Then, I had to make a decision to either buy a little printing press or a Mac. The rest, as they say, is history. (It still comes out in strange ways - like in writing my own code instead of using a readymade CMS. One day, I'm going to build a computer from parts. I'm separated by two degrees from Sulak Sivaraksa and someday may go hang out with his NGO for a while. But I digress.)

While at the Brandywine Museum a couple of weeks ago I ran across a book entitled Wyeth People by Gene Logsdon. I still have Logsdon's collected essays on agriculture, The Contrary Farmer, complete with an egg tempera by Karl J. Kuerner on the dust jacket, on my bookshelf. In the 1960s, Logsdon was getting started as a writer, and he worshipped Andrew Wyeth as an artistic hero. He got it in his head to go meet him, but logistics, the protectiveness of the community of Chadds Ford, the painter's famous reclusiveness, and the writer's humility conspired against his initial attempts to do so. (Towards the start of the book they ran into each other at a diner, and the writer soon realized that approaching him directly would accomplish little towards knowing him better.) He decided to interview the artist's models instead, getting them to talk about what it was like to sit for Wyeth. The result, published first in 1969, is in my opinion one of the great works of art writing.

Mountainous distance from the mainstream art world gives the book enormous flavor. Art people, like the ones who went to an auction of the Wyeth house in Maine and tried to buy (or steal!) a rag stuffed into a window that had appeared in one of his paintings, come off as the real bumpkins, in contrast to the actual farmers with whom Logsdon speaks. The farmers have entree into Wyeth's world, at least, and are at times co-conspirators in pranks upon media people and collectors who come sniffing around for an audience with the master. (One prank ended when Wyeth's friend Forrest Wall became obliged to correct some harmless disinformation in Newsweek.) Logsdon had to approach them with hat in hand, and a willingness to get run around a little bit.

"I'm looking for Mr. Cline," I shouted above the saw noise.

"You found him for sure," the old man roared. "I'm Cline, that feller over there is Cline, and there's a couple more of them down the road. The woods is just full of Clines today!"
"You live here all your life?" I asked.

"Not yet," he shot back. I was off balance. When in doubt, grin. I almost grinned my teeth loose.

But Logsdon's mixture of self-abnegation and tenacity wins him entrance into the lives of Wyeth's subjects. He reads the Bible with Adam Johnson. He discusses waterwheels with Karl Kuerner. He comes under the cool scrutiny of Betsy Wyeth as she tends to the endlessly ringing telephone.

Betsy shook her head. "I'm sorry, really I am, but I'm not going to do one of those wife-of-the-famous-man sort of things."

"Well, they say much of his success is due to you."

She laughed, looking out the window, then turning quickly, cathcing me off balance:

"Who says that?"

I could almost hear the sound of a steel trap snapping shut. I was bluffing and she knew I was bluffing and I had an overwhelming hunch that I was dealing with a mind a good deal faster than mine. I am not the best poker player in the world, but I usually know when to fold.

On the way, he hears stories of Andrew Wyeth, consistently portraying him as an artist of consummately high standards, privacy, integrity, and mischievousness.

"Andy uses our store [that of Irving Fales, speaking] sometimes for an unannounced art show when he finishes a painting. I remember especially when he did the portrait of Eisenhower. I don't think he likes to do protraits of famous people, because, you know, he won't paint you any better than you look. He brought the painting in here and set it up among the cans of vegetables. Said he wanted to see if it would upstage all those pretty labels. Then he got back out of the way where customers wouldn't see him, to find out whether they would notice the painting. And I guess they did! Almost everyone had something complimentary to say. That pleased Andy. He thinks plain everyday people are the best critics."

Logsdon, in the end, creates written portraits analogous to Wyeth's painted ones of these people. Rather than speculate on Wyeth's work theoretically, he emulates it, using a descriptive, humble technique that only conveys a greater thrill of mystery for all of its seeming straightforwardness. By the end of the book, Logsdon doesn't merely understand Wyeth; in a sense, he embodies him. That empathy makes for a gripping read. Wyeth People breaks no academic ground but breaks human ground instead, conveying the sense that art is a bell which rings and causes sympathetic metals nearby to hum in unison.

Comment

1.

oldpro

February 16, 2006, 5:23 PM

This is all very heart-warming but I am into neither Wyeth nor any kind of hero worship.

You and I will have to go look at some together.

2.

Franklin

February 16, 2006, 5:57 PM

We could. He's having a retrospective at the PMA next month.

3.

John

February 17, 2006, 9:50 AM

I went to Chadds Ford and Brandywine a long time ago before any art training and I absolutely thought N.C was the greatest, his figures are heroic and in person the size of the paintings made it more so. (Did you go to his Studio?) The Andrew Wyeth area I didn't like as much until I took a class in art school called Traditional Painting Method and was truly blown away as to what it took for him to create these works. Now I can't get enough of his work. Thanks Franklin.

4.

Franklin

February 17, 2006, 10:52 AM

I'm going to miss teaching. John, that was exactly the point of the class. Thank you. I learned a somewhat more efficient method of egg tempera since you had that class - ask me about it the next time you see me.

5.

jordan

February 17, 2006, 5:06 PM

Franklin, to what degree will you be exploring realism?

6.

Franklin

February 17, 2006, 5:25 PM

Jordan, I love realism, but my talent is for gesture. Lately I've been trying to figure out how to get this work to translate into oils or acrylics. It's slow going, but I think I have a new idea.

7.

jordan

February 18, 2006, 12:26 PM

Franklin, those drawings seem to have a slower gestural stroke than what I've seen in your paintings, (at least most of them) whereas your self portrait in the 'lotus position' may be the most simular in terms of material application speed. Is this correct or am I in the wrong ball park?

8.

Franklin

February 18, 2006, 3:45 PM

Jordan, you're correct. Getting the move to happen is going to require a slower stroke. I was admiring the Nice-era Matisses in the Barnes a few weeks ago and saw something familiar in them - an obvious but not overstated stroke. I wish oils could flow like ink and still retain their vibrancy. Oh well, off to the studio to attempt the impossible again.

9.

Jeremy

February 20, 2006, 3:08 PM

I don't know if you knew this already or not but there is apparently a show of Andrew and assorted Wyeth family members in Naples until March 15th. Darren called me not long ago to tell me, he said it was amazing.

I really must agree with Wyeth in his approach to criticism. While a fellow artist or a professional critic has a greater pedigree for studying, observing and analyzing art, I've found that non-artists can give some of the most revealing insights to a work. Besides, your run of the mill electrician, secretary, waiter, etc has no hardened bias or preconceptions when viewing a work, there is no agenda or practice they follow and enforce when looking at art. I really am interested in creating work that even my mother can appreciate without having to read my artist statement.

(Also, I'm sorry for missing class today, I was suckered into working last night because I owed them a favor. I do have work though, and I think I may getting to something with this series)

10.

oldpro

February 20, 2006, 4:07 PM

Jeremy, most of those people do not have preconceptions because they have no conceptions.

Once in a while someone has an eye, and it is is just as common in the genral population as it is among art people, I thibnk.

11.

George

February 20, 2006, 5:09 PM

re #10: most of those people do not have preconceptions because they have no conceptions.

huh? what is that supposed to mean?

Once in a while someone has an eye, and it is is just as common in the genral population as it is among art people, I think.

Does this mean that non-artists might get it? have a real aesthetic experience? even if they have no conceptions, sort of an immaculate conception type of aesthetic experience?

I don't much care for AW but I like Basquiat a lot and they lined up around the block to see his retro in LA, just plain folks too, a lot of them. There must be some sort of resonance there, happening with the common man, I think that's great.

12.

Franklin

February 20, 2006, 5:14 PM

huh? what is that supposed to mean?

It reminds me of one of my favorite Robert Henri quotes: Precious few people think what they think they think.

13.

Franklin

February 20, 2006, 5:16 PM

Jeremy, thanks for the heads-up. Link to Wyeth show on calendar at Naples Museum of Art.

14.

oldpro

February 20, 2006, 5:47 PM

Thanks for your stirring defense of the Common Man, George.

It means that most people have not taken the time to look at enough art to have much of a notion what is there or why they should look at it in the first place. One of my father's friends once told me, when i was a teeage art wannabe, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like" and I replied "yeah, so do squirrels". I was rebuked strongly, and appropriately, by Dad.

This is not a nasty elitist putdown of evreyday folk, George, just an observation.

Of course non-artists have esthetic experiences and can see art. As I said, probably in about the same proportion as art people do. Art is not for everybody. Why should it be?

15.

George

February 20, 2006, 6:05 PM

re:#14 Art is not for everybody. Why should it be?

Gee, I don't know but everyone likes music. May be not the same kind of music others like but so what, what's the diff?

16.

oldpro

February 20, 2006, 6:51 PM

Well. gee, George, what's the diff indeed. You heard one you heard 'em all, right?

17.

Marc Country

February 21, 2006, 11:05 PM

Well, G., for starters, we can all listen to a symphony while we drive to work in the morning, if we want to... it's a lot harder to enjoy a painting during a rush-hour commute.

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