If art is popular, can it still be art?
Andrew Wyeth, the Chadds Ford artist who had the temerity to achieve fame and fortune decades before his death in 2009, wasn't always the hit among the cognoscenti that he was with the public, but it's the public and the collectors, not the art critics, who may have had it right all along.
Or so suggests Wyeth, a new film from Philadelphia's Glenn Holsten (The Barnes Collection) that makes its American Masters premiere on Friday, Sept. 7, as part of the PBS show's four-documentary "Artists Flight." That series-within-a-series so far has included profiles of Eva Hesse and Elizabeth Murray, and concludes next week with Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Holsten is married to classical music writer Peter Dobrin.)
Holsten's Wyeth is engaging both as a portrait of the artist and as a course in appreciating his work for more than the realism that made it so accessible. Which is to say I know what I like, and now I know a bit more about why I like it.
And because Wyeth was lucky enough to divide his life between scenic properties in Chadds Ford and Maine, Wyeth is frequently also lovely to look at.
If the first thing you remember about the son of N.C. Wyeth and the father of Jamie Wyeth is the mid-'80s controversy that accompanied the unveiling of the "Helga paintings," join the club. The portraits of model and muse Helga Testorf, some of them nudes and painted over 15 years in such secrecy that neither Wyeth's wife nor Testorf's husband knew about them, fueled cover stories in both Time and Newsweek and attracted at least as much gossip at the time as they did admiration.
Holsten doesn't attempt to fully satisfy the gossips, but set in the context of Wyeth's life story, the secrecy makes some sense (and as one exhibition-goer said at the time, "I think the show is sensational — I don't care what the critics say").
Wyeth seems to have led in most ways a charmed life. There was no starving in garrets, no parental opposition to overcome. He had his first exhibition at 20, and he was barely in his 30s when the Museum of Modern Art acquired his now-famous Christina's World. In both Chadds Ford and Maine, he was lucky enough to have neighbors who permitted him to wander in and out of their homes and who lent their persons and properties to his painter's eye.
But the very circumstances that helped make his success possible — a father who home-schooled him in what would become a family business; a wife, Betsy, who took on the management of his career while still in her teens and who pushed him to be his best — seem also to have made him long for something that was his alone, at least for a time.
"He wanted to fulfill his soul. He needed this," says Testorf. "He was always producing. No artist wants to be taken for granted, that you produce, produce for the sake of producing. You never, never produce anything good if you don't have something you paint for yourself."