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.