I’ve seen a lot of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth’s work. My brother and sister-in-law and their spouses live in and near Rockland, Maine, where the Farnsworth Art Museum is located. The Farnsworth has many wonderful Wyeth pieces, and I’ve been there many times. When an Andrew Wyeth show came to the SAM in Seattle, I got a ticket even though I expected to have seen most of the works.
Not so. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the paintings were new to me — and wonderful, a feast for the eyes and the spirit. Andrew Wyeth used muted colors, stark scenes and orderly geometric lines to create his powerful images. There are grays and tans and charcoal shadows, jarring whites — none of the riotous and almost disorienting color and pattern of the previous show, YaYoi Kusama. His figures stand on hard wood floors, sit in straight back chairs without cushions — there is no cushioning the lives of the people he painted in coastal Maine, where he spent summers, or in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the poor rural farm country where he was born and lived all of his life. The lines in his paintings are severe and orderly: door and window frames, plank flooring, cabinets, simple barns and houses and docks and the horizon line where sky meets sea.
His figures gaze, they don’t smile. The curator of the SAM exhibit likened Wyeth’s lifelong creative exploration with that of film maker Ingmar Bergman. If you saw the Seventh Seal, and remember the final scene where death stares pensively into infinity, you see that same pensive gaze in Wyeth’s figures. Even in the sensuous Helga series, the beautiful Helga does no more than a Madonna-like lifting of the corners of her lips. There is unbridled power in a Wyeth painting, but not unbridled joy.
Wyeth had a remarkable long career as a painter — relevant longevity being something I always admire. He was born in 1917, and his last painting, rarely on exhibit and entitled “Goodbye”, was completed in 2008. Here it is: