Arranging the life of a painter for a significant retrospective is a curious thing, particularly when that painter is the scion of one of the world’s leading families of artists, Jamie Wyeth. Titled simply, “Jamie Wyeth,” this major retrospective spanning 60 years of work, was originally conceived and arranged for the Boston Museum of Fine Art (BMFA) by curator Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas.
San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) is the third stop on the tour, which has already included the Brandywine River Museum of Art, with Crystal Bridges Museum of Art as the final destination. This exhibition will be on display in San Antonio April 25 – July 5 and underwritten by Bank of America.
The seed of this project was planted back in 2008 when the art dealer Warren Adelson (also in San Antonio for the opening) first broached the idea of a show focusing on Wyeth’s portraits. Davis recalls that BMFA director Malcolm Rogers asked her to take a look at the possibilities.
“Looking at it, in a way, as his work gets going, he doesn’t focus particularly on the portraiture,” Davis said. “Although he does do portraits of objects, including the bale of hay, and continues to paint portraits of certain subjects like Orca Bates and his wife, Phyllis, his work is really much broader than that. I thought that our audience would respond to the career of a single artist doing a retrospective.”
From the moment he walked into the room on Wednesday morning, there was the fascination and pleasure of being in the presence of a true raconteur, an artist with deep familial roots in the “Brandywine tradition” of painting that reaches back into the 19th century. Wyeth was seeing the show as displayed in the museum’s main Cowden Gallery for the first time, along with the rest of us. He and Davis seemed very pleased with the layout of the show, which inhabits a larger space in San Antonio than in either Boston or Chadds Ford, Pa., which is the ancestral stomping grounds of the Wyeth clan.
This is a collection of a little more than 100 representative works including paintings, banners and his rarely seen tableaux vivant, these selected from a body of about 3,500 pieces. This number does not include the huge cache of 1,100 early childhood drawings that his mother had saved. Betsy James Wyeth was a powerful presence and influence, firmly managing her husband Andrew’s career. Davis is in agreement that it is no surprise that Betsy lavished the same eye for detail on her young son’s early works.
By the time he was 11, Jamie had decided that he would prefer to be home-schooled out of a desire to focus on the craft of his art, a concept unheard of in the 1950s.
“I knew I wanted to do it, and I just wanted the time to do it,”Wyeth said. “There was a precedent because my father had been taken out of school as a young boy because of illness. Well, I heard about that and I thought, ‘Boy, I’m going to try that route.’”
Although his mother and the the Pennsylvania Board of Education were initially against it, the precocious child succeeded in his persuasion. His study was modeled on similar structures for professional children; primarily English and history classes in the morning and then went on to study his craft with his aunt Carolyn Wyeth in the afternoons. It seems she was a devoted eccentric and a gifted teacher who lived and worked in N.C. Wyeth’s studio, left vacant by his untimely death in 1946. Carolyn attended to furthering the young man’s skills as a painter.
Jamie has famously followed in the footsteps of his grandfather N.C. Wyeth, and his father Andrew, but has also managed to carve his own niche over the decades. The path of this show wanders through his life, gallery by gallery: beginning with the portraits, including the now iconic posthumous rendering, “Portrait of John F. Kennedy” (1967), the “Factory” years including works with Andy Warhol and Rudolph Nureyev, from the Eyewitness to Space Program, his courtroom renderings of the Watergate hearings – moving on to images of his happy sense of home, capturing the denizens and bespoke places of his beloved Monhegan Island, Maine. His wife and muse, Phyllis Mills, figures prominently along with birds and dogs and sheep and hay bales; the exquisite portraits featuring the young Orca Bates; and then the more recent years, always fiddling with the concept of what portraiture is, animating birds, icebergs and dreamscapes, the work ranging from meditative observation to a manic chaos.
Following in the footsteps of these acclaimed American Realists also came with a price. Despite high regard and professional success by most measures, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Beginning with his first New York Times review at the tender age of 20, Jamie Wyeth has also endured the lukewarm and even occasionally hostile regard of critics everywhere. When asked about the weight of his forebears on his own work, he seems determined not to dwell on the negative:
“I find painting difficult enough that those considerations I just leave stacked outside the door of my studio. Obviously, I am constantly compared, but I happen to adore their work. If I’m going to be compared to anybody, I may as well be compared to them,” he said.
“I never knew my grandfather, but he was probably a greater influence on me than my father. My father was my best friend. We had a wonderful time, and I love his work and he seemed to enjoy my work, so it was a real loss when he died (in 2009). The only thing is that it kind of gets to be the ‘Flying Wallendas of Paint,’ which can be a drawback.”
He’s witty, this one. There’s always a punchline.
Part of the strength in Wyeth’s artwork is his apparent ability to take what works for him and leave the rest. It is clear that he forged a strong foundation laid in the classic exercises of illustration, draftsmanship and precise rendering, and he has been his own man for a long time. He has used the gift of his birthright and inborn talents to pursue his art always on his own terms – a luxury not usually afforded to mere mortals. For example, you see the influence of his years in New York, but he seems never to abandon his own path, he simply continues to feather his nest. Like a persistent magpie, he takes the shiny bits that work for him, and discards the rest.
This isn’t meant to be insulting, particularly given Wyeth’s affinity for canny birds. It is fascinating to study the history of a man in nearly his 70th year, who has spent a life devoted to his art while always living in the public eye. His definitive statement is that art is all he does and all he wants to do. He seems to have a restless curiosity and remains aware and wary of the possible traps, but he tries not to be hindered by this self-awareness. This is an observation about his chosen style of work.
“The danger with representational painting is that it can be cute, or pretty, or oh it looks like the thing. I am really more interested in abstract painting to look at and enjoy because of the freedom of it. But to me, with representational painting, if you can use it and get it out of the object, why not use the object, why abstract it? Paint it with the thinking that, hopefully, if you turned the painting upside down, it would still be exciting in its forms, not just ‘Oh look! It looks like a real dog!’ That’s what makes me interested in painting the way that I do,” he said.
“Its a fascinating world to me, the world of painting. I mean, of all the disciplines, I think it is the most singularly individual. What do you need to paint? A piece of cloth, some sticky stuff called paint and a stick with some hair in the end of it… It’s the most immediate, which thrills me, is why I’m in it.”
As we make our way through the exhibition he continually regales us with anecdotes and glimpses into his life. It all seems very intimate, but one comes to an understanding that the last Wyeth standing has crafted his image as carefully as he has crafted his paintings. Wearing a soft, oatmeal-colored canvas jacket over a pale violet oxford shirt, he takes us by surprise with a baggy pair of dark plus fours (commonly known as golf knickers), moon and stars knee socks, and well-polished black leather brogues, the deep crust of paint on his fingernails belying his natty attire. He cuts a wide swath through the gallery and his performance is spot-on, all the while maintaining the posture that he finds the process distinctly uncomfortable. He comes to a stop in front of the wildly dramatic “Inferno, Monhegan” (2006).
“Monhegan Island is a beautiful place. You know if you’ve been there that Maine is very beautiful and picturesque, but it has produced more awful art than probably any state in the country. Terrible things, with seagulls that look like doves, and so forth. Seagulls are scavengers and they’re nasty, wonderful birds, I think.
“This is not something I made up. You see painters come to Monhegan in the summertime loaded with cameras. They’re painting lobster traps, while down on the shore, there’s this amazing drama going on. This is Orca’s brother, whose job was to feed this inferno-burning-thing the trash on the island. This amazing, angelic boy, forcing into the flame, and the gulls coming down, and it was like something out of ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ You couldn’t make this up!
“Of course, no one looked at this. Everyone was off doing their pretty things with lobster boats and, so forth. To me, this was the side I just loved, the edginess of it.
Take the time to watch the short film that accompanies this exhibit. Also called “Inferno,” the film is a peek into the studio as the artist works on the piece. Again, it is yet another fascinating, well produced piece of the puzzle, created by Boston MFA. Furthermore, if your curiosity is piqued, poke around a bit on YouTube and take a look at what’s there. These videos are a decent approximation of our tour experience with the artist. Or at least as close as you will ever likely get.
At the end of our tour, I couldn’t resist asking this icon of American Realism to share his thoughts on the current state of contemporary art and the wildcatting nature of markets like Art Basel. His response:
“I think, for young people, ‘what a fascinating field.’ It is divergent, it is all over the place, but why not? At least people are looking, and they’re puzzled by or curious about it. It’s like when the internet came in and they said that would be the end of writing, or nobody will go to museums, which is nonsense. I think it has enlarged the audience.
“Now, you can see a work of art reproduced exactly, 50 million times, but that creates the urge to see the edition of one. They want to go to the museum to see Van Gogh’s fingerprint. That’s an edition of one. It can be reproduced a billion times, but that’s the one. People want to see handmade things. And painting, there’s nothing more handmade than that. It’s a wide open field.”
SAMA’s Chief Curator, William Keyse Rudolph, got the last word with a poignant story about his Appalachian childhood and the impact of a magazine reproduction of Wyeth’s “Pumpkinhead – Self-Portrait” (1972):
“Seeing the work again as it was going up reminded me that images are powerful. It’s exciting that an artist can create images, because not every kid grows up in a house with images. We are hoping this show will inspire people of all ages, but particularly encourage kids to realize they can engage with art, they can dream, they can create and they can imagine.”
San Antonio Museum of Art is located at 200 W. Jones Avenue, on the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk. “Jamie Wyeth” is free to SAMA members. There is a $10 surcharge for non-members 18 years and older. For more information about museum programming, take a look at the museum website, samuseum.org, or call (210) 978-8100.