A contemporary artist who worked through era after era of contemporary art’s total reinvention by becoming more and more the same, Andrew Wyeth was best not discussed in progressive art world circles. With his father N.C. and son Jamie, Wyeth held a dynastic, unimpeachable perch from his country estate in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and the artist’s silent, timeless observation of rural life uninterested in change was dismissed by some as irrelevant, drab, or as aristocratic folly for the enjoyment of the middle class.
But today, after news of the artist’s death at 91, the statistics from the general public speak for themselves: Wyeth’s 2006 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with 175,000 visitors in four months, broke all attendance records for a living artist. 1948’s Christina’s World remains one of the Museum of Modern Art’s top-ten perennial attractions, and the beautiful scene’s paradoxically heavy narrative–a woman, paralyzed from the waist down, crawls up a hill toward home on a bright afternoon–can serve as a manifesto for the man’s approach. It is a wrought scene, but the experience of looking at it can be gentle, above all, before agitating the viewer into a journey to more complicated emotions. Being prim and low-key, with prettiness as the work’s abiding message, gave the artist formidable currency in reproduction. Wyeth was, perhaps, America’s favorite artist.
For young art students, Wyeth’s austere hand and arid eye merits a legacy exactly as instructive as the frenzied steam-heat of Pollock or the depressive megaton weight of Rothko, his contemporaries and foils in the era of ’40s high Modernism. The fact he chose to speak quietly and seek beauty was its own kind of bravery. Wyeth believed that all could benefit from knowing sentimental reverie, and the man had a point.–William Pym