Who is Jamie Wyeth?

Since the death of his famous father, Andrew Wyeth, the last in a succession of renowned painters explores strange new territory in his work. A major retrospective shows the evolution of an American artist.

Jamie Wyeth may have pulled a fast one.

In an elite world of artists who are fiercely attached to the philosophical underpinning of their work, and critics who often require a highly intellectualized defense of those ideas before they will consider an artist significant or important, Wyeth fashions himself a “boring” person who simply paints, day after day, the things he loves.

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So what are we to make of “Bale?” The 1972 oil painting depicts a hay bale in a wood-bounded meadow full of similar bales. With its focus on an everyday object, it is like a folk painting. In Wyeth’s obviously painstaking effort to render the bale precisely, it is most certainly realistic. And in an attempt to speak plainly, it is not unlike Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” or “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” those iconic rejections of the abstract, even if the imperfection of Wyeth’s dazzling technique forces some incidental abstraction just the same. With “Bale,” Wyeth seems to have dipped a toe into the current of Pop—reinforced by the repetition of machine-made bales in the background like so many silk-screened Marilyn Monroes—while anchored to the tradition of realism. Which means that, even if he feels some small affinity with Warhol, he is still bound to predecessors like Winslow Homer and his own famous father, Andrew Wyeth, whose meticulously painted blades of grass in “Christina’s World” recur through the individual sticks of hay in “Bale.”

No less an authority than Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, considers he painting a masterwork. “‘Bale’ is completely original and distinctly American,” says Davis, curator of “Jamie Wyeth,” a retrospective of his six-decade career, which she originated at the MFA. “It is very different from Monet’s wheat stacks. It’s a result of his immersive style.”

It is an obvious reference. Claude Monet’s 25 paintings of wheat stacks, though a similar subject, are a study in variation over time, an obsessively recorded series of moments defined by space and light. “Bale” is more accurately described as a portrait, defined by the subject itself—and by Wyeth’s intense, laborious process of studying and painting. The casual critic or unabashed admirer will see what they like in it. Despite any accidental or intended visual allusions, historical references, technical homages or other highfalutin artsy stuff, Wyeth will tell you the bale was just something he felt compelled to paint. It became an obsession, like any one of the several that have birthed some really fine paintings—paintings often made for the sake of painting itself. “It’s just what I do,” he says. 

Could it be that simple? Since he was 17 years old, Wyeth, now 68, has dallied at the heights of the art world, rubbing shoulders with politicians, performers and the most prominent artists of his day. He describes himself as a humble painter who, youthful sojourns in New York aside, is uninterested in subjects outside his orbit of Pennsylvania and coastal Maine, but surely he is cannier than that. Or is he?

“Jamie Wyeth” opens at the Brandywine River Museum of Art on Jan. 17. To those of us who have seen his many exhibitions over the years, it must be made clear: This show is unlike any that has come before, and it is a very big deal. (Never mind a previous “retrospective” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts half a lifetime ago.) Given Wyeth’s status in the First Family of American Art, interest—or curiosity—has always flowed naturally, if not with the same volume of interest in N.C. and Andrew. Yet, with his various thematic obsessions and styles, Jamie Wyeth has made his own way. In “Jamie Wyeth,” Davis has freed him from the larger context of Wyeth family art, recognizing him, at long last, as his own man.

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Photo by Carlos Alejandro

Bale, 1972

But Wyeth’s diversity of styles and subjects makes him an enigma, “a challenge for contemporary critics and viewers alike,” writes David Houston, executive director of the Bo Bartlett Center in Georgia, in the opening to the exhibition catalog. So when someone as influential as Davis decides to champion Wyeth, the art world takes notice. Indeed, as the exhibition was being organized, colleagues joked with her, “Don’t bring that show near me,” which speaks volumes about the diversity of opinion about Wyeth. Some critics of the exhibition, though lavish in their praise of his ability, wonder why the effort was made for him. To them, he seems too whimsical, sometimes sentimental, not at all original. But if the artists put themselves out there, Davis says, she feels an obligation to keep them out there. Not only does she believe Wyeth is one of the most important contemporary realists, she saw, in curating her first retrospective of a living artist—her first project after building the MFA’s renowned Art of the Americas wing—a chance to show us how one evolves. “We wanted to assess Jamie amid all of his many inspirations,” she says.

Boston knows N.C and Andrew well. The first Wyeth in America settled in Cambridge, Mass., in the 17th century. N.C. was born in nearby Needham, where he lived until joining Howard Pyle’s school of illustration in Wilmington and launching his famous career. Andrew, though born and raised in Chadds Ford, Pa., is forever linked with the intellectual tradition of New England, his own individualism descended from the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and paralleled in the poetry of his friend Robert Frost, his style influenced in part by Homer. Paintings he made in Maine readily found favor among the Boston cognoscenti. Jamie Wyeth was the city’s introduction to a Wyeth who was not a household name. Many of the 114 works displayed at the MFA—“Draft Age,” “Raven” and the like—are from the collection of the Brandywine River Museum and from exhibitions such as “Farm Work” in 2011, “Factory Work” in 2006 and others, going back to 1974. Seeing previous exhibitions individually, however, “is like reading a book with the chapters out of order,” says Amanda C. Burdan, associate curator at the Brandywine.

So “Jamie Wyeth” starts at the beginning. There are pencil drawings made when he was 5 years old, images inspired by the boy’s literature his grandfather illustrated so beautifully. The section also features his portraits, including his famous John F. Kennedy, before moving to paintings that resulted from his participation in NASA’s Eyewitness to Space program for artists and the work produced as a court artist during the Watergate hearings. The exhibition shows the fruits of Wyeth’s years in New York, when, in the mid-1970s, he set up a studio in The Factory to paint Warhol’s portrait and when he also began to paint dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

We next see work that originated in the Brandywine Valley and work from Maine. From both places, there are several stunning portraits of animals and people, portraits of his wife Phyllis, architectural paintings and scenes of the bucolic that are, though beautiful, anything but quaint. Finally, there is his recent work. For those familiar with the Wyeths, that’s where things get really interesting.

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“I’m a very strange painter,” Wyeth is wont to state, without elaborating. Given the lack of artist’s statements, revealing interviews, and spokesmen in the community of critics—without a substantial body of criticism—there is no guide to understanding his work. “Perhaps that’s why we feel a little strange inflecting even the slightest theorization,” Burdan says. “I think there’s a large audience, however, who appreciates the fact that his paintings don’t come with prerequisite reading lists in order to get them.”

A portrait of a white rooster in front of a cardboard carton for Corn Flakes, for example, is easy to understand at a glance, and we like that. We also appreciate the humor. But a surface reading seems insufficient. There must be more to beautiful images than beauty itself. Which is what so badly bugged the Boston critics. The exhibition portrays Wyeth as an insightful portraitist, a cooly objective documentarian, a somewhat subjective documentarian, a painter of landscapes and seascapes, and a romantic. He either defies classification, or he remains uncategorized because he could be labeled in several different ways. Houston concludes that, among the many types of realism practiced by a great variety of contemporary painters—traditional, neo-traditional, surrealism, hyperrealism—“Jamie Wyeth is a pluralist among the predictability of art-world stylists.”

The implication: In a marketplace where style is equated with brand, where an artist’s vision can be molded by sales as easily as a politician’s opinion can change with the polls, Wyeth stays true to his vision. Whatever it may be at any given time. “Jamie is one of the most consistently inconsistent people you’ve ever met,” says longtime family friend Frolic Weymouth, chairman of the Brandywine River Museum. “You never know what he’s going to do next.” 

Pop Art shares realism’s emphasis on the representational, so the cereal carton in “Corn Flakes” could be read as an oblique or direct acknowledgment of Pop’s importance in contemporary art or of some debt to Warhol. Or not. Perhaps Wyeth was simply amused that the flesh-and-blood symbol of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes strutted past the box at the moment he happened to look. “He’s very open to your perception of his painting,” Burdan says. “Whatever you get out of it is great with him.”

Wyeth obviously knows his art history. It is easy enough to find iterations of the family’s genius in his work, as well as lessons learned from towering figures such as Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and John Singleton Copley. Much is made of the tension between the scruffy subject of a 17-year-old Wyeth’s “Portrait of Shorty,” with his tattered undershirt and two-day beard, and the luxurious brocade of the wingback chair he sits in. The palette and Flemish precision are pure Jan van Eyck, the emotional power all Wyeth. But in explaining the choice of chair, Wyeth has said he used it because it was there. 

Was he that callow? Or was he—is he—that cagey? One wonders. Wyeth is known for deep, sometimes weeks-long study of his subjects. So his portraits seem to reveal much about his insights, yet Wyeth has somehow managed to evade such intense scrutiny of himself. “He’s very complex in one sense,” Weymouth says. “He’s very private about his painting. But he’s very good at what he does, and there are reasons for that. He just doesn’t intellectualize this stuff. Jamie Wyeth is glib and charming, a bit of a raconteur, but discussion of his work goes only so far. “I just don’t impose myself on the viewer,” he says.

Portrait of Shorty, 1963

Where one might perceive a beyond-his-years insight in the puffed-up chest and back-thrust head of a triumphant musketeer in “D’Artagnan,” a pencil drawing made when he was but 5 years old, Wyeth says only, “I was precocious in some ways, I guess, but all I did was draw. My world was totally in my drawings. I don’t know what was going on in my mind.” He recalls with enthusiasm ascending the gantry of the Saturn V rocket as part of Eyewitness to Space, but leave it to his uncle, the late painter Peter Hurd, to compare rocket science to the building of Gothic cathedrals, and leave it to Houston to identify Wyeth’s rendering of the structure in “Support” as referring to a flying buttress, the signal innovation of Gothic architects. Wyeth’s own comment on the experience is less about art. “NASA and Watergate were so opposite of what I’d done,” he says. “Being asked to record them made me a little more relevant. I wasn’t a little kid in Chadds Ford just painting anymore.”

Working in New York City also could be seen as a strategic move. To be taken seriously, Wyeth needed to distance himself from his father, who was rejected by critics consumed by the appetite for abstract expressionism that grew mid-century, even as his popular appeal soared. What could be farther from the Wyeths, Wyeth Country and expressionism than The Factory? Wyeth says the move was not at all calculated. “I was just following my curiosity,” he says. “I had no sense of where I was in the art world—or where I should be.”

The Factory could easily have rocked the sensibilities of a young artist looking for a gateway to the elite, but Wyeth was more intrigued by Warhol’s peculiarities. Though the two became genuine friends, “I was in it for a reason,” Wyeth says. “I wanted to record him, to paint him. I was not affected by things. I was too tuned in to studying him, his looks—the white wig, the make-up. But I wanted to get in, do it and get out. I did endless studies. Then I finally squeezed that sponge dry.” 

So he went home. Wyeth says he doesn’t understand why he is attracted to the things he loves, but those things are all he desires to paint. Whether working in coastal Maine—Tenants Harbor or Monhegan—or at Point Lookout Farm, his home in the Brandywine Valley, Wyeth returns again and again to the subjects and scenes that have compelled him since youth: the ocean, the land, various trees, the night sky, Phyllis, various other people, birds of many kinds, farm animals, pets and pumpkins—lots of pumpkins. “Jamie Wyeth” teems with examples.

Criticized for trying to romanticize some “authentic” version of America, Wyeth paints the version of the country he has chosen to live in exactly the way he sees it. By example, he is quintessentially American—individualistic, a tamer of the wilderness that is his own imagination. So an important part of what we don’t—can’t—see behind the work in “Jamie Wyeth” is the painter at daybreak, lugging buckets of frozen meat to a feeding station to lure the eagles and ravens he wants to observe, or Wyeth standing outdoors in subfreezing temperatures, painting without gloves. “That’s love,” says his niece, Victoria Wyeth. “Jamie is totally committed. He paints his heart. He paints his soul.”

Heart and soul—dual seats of mystery. There is much of it evident in the new “Sleepwalker,” the image of a woman in a sheer white wrap walking on the jagged rocks of Monhegan, weirdly lit cliff behind her, night sky above aglow in eerie green tones. Is she an angel? A ghost? The real history of Monhegan provides reasons for both, but don’t count on Wyeth to explain much beyond the sky. It was inspired in part, he says, by a fireworks display he had seen in Beijing while viewing a show of his father’s work. “I saw someone walking on a beach,” he says. “I’m not looking for interesting scenes or places. It’s triggered by something else. These things are incredible obsessions at the time … Is there something emanating out of the painting because of that obsession? I think people sense that.”

Burdan sees Wyeth’s work from the Brandywine Valley as evolving slowly and consistent with the local tradition, which she describes as always slightly out of step with the mainstream. Wyeth in Maine, however, is altogether different. “Suddenly 2009 happens, and something else is unleashed,” she says, “and what was unleashed, I think, lives on that island [Monhegan].”

That was the year of Andrew Wyeth’s death, which, in Jamie, began a dream that inspired the paintings “Sea Watchers” and “The Sea, Watched,” both from 2009, and “A Recurring Dream,” made in 2011. “Sea Watchers” depicts Wyeth’s main influences and mentors—Homer, Warhol, N.C. and Andrew—standing on the Monhegan cliffs at night. The later paintings show only N.C. and Andrew. “That was such an incredibly vivid dream,” Wyeth says. “I’ve done eight versions of that painting. More figures were eliminated each time, until they are all gone but Dad. It’s so inexplicable. Very strange.”

Where Burdan refers to Andrew’s “Winter 1946” as a turning point forced by his grief over the death of N.C.—the event Andrew identified as “making” him a painter—Jamie Wyeth sees nothing of the sort in his dream sequence. He simply felt, he says, compelled to record the image. And though it might seem he was working out something emotionally, he can’t—or won’t—say what either the dreams or the pictures mean, even if his constant painting of the dream finally ended it.

Which is the fun and frustration of “Jamie Wyeth.” So many images seem to hint at so much. But what? The narrative behind the most obviously narrative works is always obscured.

Victoria Wyeth, Andrew’s only grandchild and Jamie’s only niece, has lectured about Wyeth art for 20 years. She tells a story about an Andrew painting that depicts a coat hanging from a hook, near a window where an apple sits on the sill. Victoria asked her mother, an art historian, what the apple could mean. Her mother gave a list of symbols and implications. When Victoria conveyed them to her grandfather, he laughed and said, “I just liked the way it looked.” Upon explaining Andy’s reaction, her mother scoffed, “He doesn’t realize the meaning of his own work.” Applied to the younger Wyeth, sometimes a bale of hay is just a bale of hay. “He’s just painting his life,” Victoria Wyeth says.

The Sea, Watched, 2009

Is “painting his life” enough to make Jamie Wyeth an “important” artist, or is he simply one that many people like a lot? Critics of the MFA exhibition may have been less than kind, but the tough audience of Boston—with its surfeit of Copleys and Sargents—was plenty curious. By mid-November, with seven weeks until the exhibition was to end at the MFA, the number of visitors had exceeded 146,000, a rate of visitation on pace to pass 200,000. The number would break the record for attendance at a retrospective for a living American artist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: 177,000, set by “Andrew Wyeth—Memory and Magic in 2006.” The interest raises the value of Wyeth stock. It bodes well for subsequent shows at San Antonio Museum of Art and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, other places where Wyeth isn’t a household name. And it announces that now is as good a time as any to consider what Wyeth’s legacy might be. He has ability. He maintains the integrity of his vision. He has a fierce work ethic. He has an oeuvre, parts of it in important museums and private collections. And he had the enormous good fortune to be born a Wyeth. All of that speaks to significance. But perhaps more important is the fact that, even within what Houston calls Wyeth’s “circular evolution,” his constant revisiting of old and beloved subjects, Davis points out that Wyeth, nearing 70, is still evolving “and, we hope, will continue to refine his vision over the years ahead.”

For an extended gallery of Wyeth’s art, click here.

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