Go with God, Andrew Wyeth (a Secret Life rediscovered)
I was not at all sad this weekend when I heard about the death of Andrew Wyeth, the great American artist. His long life was everything an artist could hope for. He grew up surrounded by artists who loved him and nurtured his talent. At the ripe old age of twenty, he had mounted his first one-man exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, selling out his entire inventory and guaranteeing a future in which he would be free to explore and express himself however he wanted for the next 72 years. He leaves us with a body of work that takes his uniquely American spirit into the future.
I've loved Andrew Wyeth since I was just barely big enough to hold a big book of American art (appropriately titled The Big Book of American Art) open to the full page print of "Christina's World". Whenever I see that painting, I'm struck with one particularly vivid memory: sitting on the floor in our house in Tomah, Wisconsin, tucked into a corner close to the heater between the wall and a big old console stereo. Chet Atkins was on the record player, smooth and mellow in contrast to the sound of my mother's manual typewriter.
When my own kids were little, Gary and I took them to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd's Ford, PA, to see the paintings of members of the Wyeth family, and years later, I finally saw Christina in person at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Up close, it's one of those paintings you fall into for an hour, and seeing it left me choked up and weepy, partly because it connected to such a potent memory of the happy childhood in which I too was surrounded by love and nurtured by artists.
I was alive with curiosity when Wyeth's closely kept secret, the Helga series, came to light in the late '80s, but because I loved Wyeth's work so dearly, I was nervous about knowing too much about the man himself, so I put off reading Richard Meryman's Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. As I recall, I finally picked it up one long evening when I was doing a table signing no one came to. Here's a bit from the front matter in the Harper Perennial paperback edition:
This biography became for me a map of Andrew's all-consuming obsession with painting: its ripple effects on his relationships, its roots in N.C.. Wyeth's romanticized legacy, both dynamic and darkly distorting. The book is the story of how the complex pieces of his life--the inputs, the conscious choices, the compulsions, the angers and affections--have combined to transmit emotion onto his flat surfaces...
He did not want the reproductions of his work reverentially placed or the page surrounded by white borders like a frame. He wanted the excitement of the pictures bled off the edges and carried across the gutter between the pages.
It's a terrific book about an amazing life. I'm going to try to find a copy so I can read it on my way to New York, where I plan to pay a visit to Christina this week. My way of saying thank you and goodbye.
Go with God, Mr. Wyeth.
Top: "Trodden Weed", Wyeth's unconventional self-portrait, middle: "Christina's World", bottom: Time Magazine's Helga cover