Unclothed in Andrew Wyeth’s Art

2017-06-16 17:58:03

 

Unclothed in Andrew Wyeth’s Art

CHADDS FORD, Pa. — The art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw took a 45-minute drive from Philadelphia to the Brandywine River Museum of Art here two years ago on a sensitive mission: to study Andrew Wyeth’s pictures of black subjects.

Ms. Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was invited by the curators behind “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,” a 105-work exhibition that opens on Saturday, June 24, at the Brandywine and honors the centenary of the painter’s birth.

Wyeth (1917-2009), one of the most popular American painters of the 20th century, was deeply tied to this lush, densely forested landscape with old stone houses and horses grazing on hills. It still looks that way today.

Both his white clapboard studio, marked by a sign that says “I do not sign autographs,” and the studio of his father, the illustrator N. C. Wyeth, are just down the road from the museum and part of a 60,000-acre land trust that his family helped create. Only a half-mile through the woods from the studios is Kuerner Farm, the site of dozens of his portraits and landscapes, notably the paintings of his frequent model, Helga. She still lives nearby, in a modest ranch house.

Now the exhibition organizers were asking Ms. Shaw, an author of books and essays on race and culture, to dig deeper into Wyeth — “a mythic figure in Chadds Ford,” said Audrey Lewis, the Brandywine curator and an organizer the show, but one whose paintings of black subjects still intrigue scholars.

Ms. Shaw, 48, was a fan who, at 16, bought a poster of Wyeth’s most famous work, “Christina’s World” (1948), and hung it over her bed in Cambridge, Mass.

Still, she said, “I never thought about working on Wyeth and didn’t know these images.”

The curators pointed her to “Barracoon” (1976), showing a nude, reclining black woman seen from behind — a version of a classic odalisque. The work’s title refers to an enclosure for slaves.

“They said, ‘You know, it’s actually Helga,’” recalled Ms. Shaw, who was stopped in her tracks by the revelation. “I said, ‘What?’”

She learned that to hide the identity of his model, whose real name is Helga Testorf, Wyeth changed the subject’s race, darkening the skin and saying that it was a picture of Betty Hammond, a black maid who had worked with the Wyeth family for 37 years. He did the same on at least one other Helga picture, “Heat Lightning.”

He had painted Ms. Testorf, a married mother of four, for some 15 years, for much of that time unbeknown to his wife. It was brought to light in the 1987 blockbuster exhibition “Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

“I was taken aback,” Ms. Shaw said. “To think about, in that moment, both seeing an image of a black woman and not seeing an actual black woman. I was really confused, excited and kind of bewildered.”

Her catalog essay “Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings” — which uses art history to mount a moral argument — zeros in on what she called the “always-unequal relationship” between Andrew Wyeth and his black subjects.

“His nude images of black women embody the power imbalance that characterized interracial interactions in the Brandywine Valley throughout the 20th century,” she writes, adding that his models’ “subordinate positions as poor, black and working class enabled the artist to exert a great deal of control over how he imaged them on paper or canvas.”

To Ms. Shaw, the visual representation of race in Wyeth’s work raised the question of how much leeway white artists should have in depicting subjects of another race. Is all fair in the name of art?

She could not have anticipated then how the debate would roil the art world in the present political moment, with recent protests over racially charged works by white painters at the Whitney Museum in New York City and at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. Earlier this month the painter Sam Durant acknowledged his “grave miscalculation” in creating a gallows sculpture in Minneapolis intended to rebuke an act of genocide against 38 Dakota men, after Native communities called the work insensitive.

The Wyeth exhibition — on view here through Sept. 17 and then moving in a slightly different form to the Seattle Art Museum, co-organizer of the show — looks at several facets of his work, from his obsession with the movies to his fascination with World War I.

Wyeth is often dismissed as a talented realist — generally not a compliment in today’s art world. After gaining immense currency with “Christina’s World,” showing Christina Olson, a woman with a physical disability, crawling through a field near the Wyeth summer home in Cushing, Me., he quickly fell out of favor with the cognoscenti, though not with the public.

“He painted with such a painstakingly realistic style, you feel that everything is there on the surface,” said Thomas Padon, the Brandywine’s director. “But once you dig into it, that’s not the case. There’s more behind what you see.”

Mr. Padon added, “It’s a moment to look beyond the myths.”

Over 60 years, Wyeth painted a dozen different black men and women. Many of the sitters lived in an area close to the family compound that N. C. Wyeth referred to as “Little Africa,” where the remains of the community church can still be seen. Sometimes Andrew Wyeth conflated his sitters, merging identities at will.

In exhibitions like “Close Friends” at the Mississippi Museum of Art, in 2001, Wyeth’s pictures of black subjects could be seen as attempts to understand lives different than his own.

As Audrey Lewis, the Brandywine curator put it, “There’s a sentimentality about the portraits, and an affection.”

That feeling comes through in the portraits of James Loper, a farmworker who lived nearby and, according to the catalog, was mentally disabled. Five images of Loper, including “April Wind” (1952), are in the Brandywine show.

But there may be a difference between contemporaneous images like Alice Neel’s portraits of her Spanish Harlem neighbors and Norman Rockwell’s history picture about integration, “The Problem We All Live With,” or even Winslow Homer’s archetypal Reconstruction figures from a century earlier. Wyeth’s close relationships with some of his black subjects also involved a distinct power advantage, Ms. Shaw points out, in cases where they were former employees of his family.

Ms. Shaw analyzes information that was not emphasized by other scholars, as with her study of one work, “Spring Evening” (1948). It depicts a former housekeeper, Evelyn Smith, in the nude, though at the time her identity wasn’t known. According to scholarship on Wyeth, cited in Ms. Shaw’s essay, it was a situation with an element of sexual tension.

Ms. Shaw said that “Barracoon,” and “Spring Lightning” were two “deeply troubling” pictures because the subjects “weren’t allowed to realize a full identity.”

She added that she was surprised that such images are still talked about as pictures of black subjects, long after the true story was known: “My issue is more with my field,” rather than with the paintings.

Timothy J. Standring, a curator at the Denver Art Museum who organized a 2015 Wyeth exhibition there, said that Ms. Shaw’s take was “plausible” but that in his view, Wyeth “tended to treat all people equally.”

Jamie Wyeth — the artist’s son and a painter himself who learned the craft from his father in connected studios — said that his father’s portraits of black subjects were in keeping with the rest of the work. “Should he have been more sympathetic?” he said. “No. He had this urge to record things. He was a tough bird. The only thing that interested him was painting.”

Mr. Wyeth was also unperturbed by the racial transposition of “Barracoon” and added, “Why not mix them? What’s wrong with that?”

But to those who study Andrew Wyeth, some pictures point to a pattern. “He’s exploitative in a number of ways,” said Patricia Junker, a curator at the Seattle Art Museum and an organizer of the Brandywine exhibition.

In particular, Ms. Junker pointed to his images of Siri Erickson, the daughter of family friends in Maine, who was a teenager when Wyeth first painted her in the nude. A clothed portrait, “Siri” (1970), is in the current show.

“There’s a fixation that makes me uncomfortable,” Ms. Junker said. “It makes me cringe.”

However they were achieved, she said, his portraits still come alive for the viewer: “We can feel a deep human connection with Wyeth.”

Kinshasa Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said that she was impressed that the organizers commissioned Ms. Shaw’s work in the first place, given that they could have taken a safer route.

“Hallelujah,” said Ms. Conwill, who read Ms. Shaw’s essay. “They don’t skirt the issues.” In particular, she said it deftly addressed the question, “Who has the authority to define someone?”

The artist Hank Willis Thomas, who often addresses black identity in his work, said that Wyeth “exploited, but not maliciously, as part of his brand.” But he noted that Ms. Shaw’s essay crystallized something larger about painters and their subjects. “It’s not about him being a bad guy,” Mr. Thomas said. “But it’s the question for any artist: When are you not exploiting someone?”

As for Ms. Shaw, she took pains to note that her work wasn’t intended to injure Wyeth’s reputation, but rather to layer it.

“I love Wyeth,” she said. “I think we can find artists to be complicated and frustrating and disappointing in some ways and still love the work.”

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