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Scholars challenge longtime critics in book that re-examines Andrew Wyeth's art

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

LAWRENCE – Like his iconic painting “Christina’s World,” Andrew Wyeth’s legacy is one of emotional depth and complexity, according to the first academic book to be published on the artist.

Inspired by the people, places and objects of rural Maine and Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s work has been admired by the public, valued by collectors and popular with museums. Yet for more than half a century, art critics have largely dismissed Wyeth, viewing his work as reactionary, sentimental and the product of a glorified illustrator.

In “Rethinking Andrew Wyeth,” nine scholars re-examine Wyeth’s legacy. Published by the University of California Press and edited by David Cateforis, University of Kansas art history professor, the book makes the case that Wyeth is worthy of serious scholarship.

“I edited this book out of the conviction that these attacks on Wyeth need to be refuted and that he is an important artist who deserves the same kind of scholarly attention that we would give someone like Andy Warhol,” Cateforis said.

In a recent Art Journal review, Jennifer Greenhill said “Rethinking Andrew Wyeth” is a “strong step toward a re-evaluation of an artist whose complexity still largely eludes us.”

As proof of Wyeth’s complexity, Cateforis points to “Christina’s World,” a bucolic image of a woman sitting in a grassy field, back turned to the viewer and facing a farmhouse on the horizon. The painting turns tragic once the viewer learns the woman is Wyeth’s paraplegic neighbor, Christina Olson, who is looking out over the expanse of land between herself and her home.

“With every Wyeth picture there are these stories that Wyeth scholars and fans know. But you don’t have to know them to appreciate the mood and the kind of sensibility that his work conveys,” Cateforis said.

Wyeth, who was the son of the great illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was well received early in his career. His paintings sold for record amounts and major exhibits were held in museums across the country. Starting in the mid-1960s, the art establishment veered toward pop art, minimalism, conceptualism and other avant-garde trends. Wyeth’s realist paintings fell out of favor.

“In the 1950s, a critic referred to Wyeth as a serious best-seller. And I think later critics dropped the serious part and only saw him as a best-seller,” Cateforis said.

The origins of “Rethinking Andrew Wyeth” began at a 2005 College Art Association meeting where scholars were invited to reconsider Wyeth’s legacy. The book includes three papers presented at the session as well as remarks prepared by Wanda Corn, a professor emerita at Stanford University who organized the first Wyeth exhibition on the West Coast in 1973 and wrote the first dissertation on the artist.

Corn’s essay “Lifting the Curse” rebuts four common criticisms of Wyeth: that he was not modern; he was an illustrator; his work was too easy to understand, and his art was conservative both aesthetically and politically. She pulls data from surveys taken at Wyeth exhibits in 1973 and 2006 that indicate audiences were well-educated, liked modern art and were politically liberal.

Other essays examine how Wyeth used watercolors and tempera to express the extroverted and introverted sides of his personality, the wartime imagery in Wyeth’s work “Night Hauling,” and disability themes in “Christina’s World.” Wyeth’s work is compared and contrasted to that of Jackson Pollock, Robert Frost and Marcel Duchamp.

“We have serious academics who are willing to write about Wyeth without apology,” Cateforis said. “Wyeth exhibitions are always filled with people who look at the pictures carefully and thoughtfully and find them moving and meaningful. We need to investigate the importance of his work without being deterred by the bias of a generation of critics.”