Monday, August 4, 2014

Lost in the stars of the 70's (Jamie Wyeth, Part 2)

Two obsessions - Nureyev and the color yellow.
(This is the second of a three-part series on Jamie Wyeth, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the MFA. The first installment is available here.)

It's not hard to imagine the curious crossroads that Jamie Wyeth faced in the early 70's.

On the one hand, he was the scion of one of America's most famous painterly families, and the inheritor of a superb realist talent (indeed, he already had a clutch of masterpiece portraits to his credit). The artist also had few financial worries; his family's fame (and his own skills) ensured him a stream of lucrative commissions, and moreover he had married into the du Pont dynasty.

So as he approached thirty, Wyeth was utterly secure in one way - but in another, he was completely at sea. For realism was all but ridiculed in the high artistic society of the 70's, and Wyeth found himself facing unrelenting critical hostility. And while his talent was undeniable - and his obsession with his craft all but complete - the object of that ability remained indeterminate.

For the legacies of his father (and grandfather) still loomed over his achievement so far. And their essentially literary artistic values had fallen on hard critical times. Sentiments, insights, impressions - the very meaning of "realism" - all this seemed passé, much like technical prowess itself. So by the 70's the Wyeths were being widely dismissed as illustrators rather than artists.

It's perhaps no surprise then that Jamie began to drift; and given his social position, that he drifted among the parallel demimondes of celebrity and wealth. What's almost too perfect an irony, however, is that he eventually found himself in the orbit of Andy Warhol. For Warhol, far more than Wyeth, really was an illustrator - in fact he got his start sketching shoes. Yet Warhol was already well on his way to iconic status, while Wyeth was all but being ignored; for he had done what Wyeth could not: he had brilliantly re-invented illustration as a new phase of the avant-garde.

"Jamie Wyeth," Andy Warhol, 1976
This was accomplished with just a handful of images - the famous soup cans and Brillo boxes chief among them. But the superficiality of these pop-art tricks only concealed the depth of the transformation their banality heralded. Somehow Warhol had instinctively known that retail all by itself could fill the vacuum left by society's various post-war liberations - indeed, that it had to fill it. Which proved arguably the most powerful insight since the forging of modernism; in fact fifty years on, we're still living through zombie-like revivals of Warhol's central idea. Still, it inspired only a brief flowering in his own art; the high period of Warhol's achievement stretches only half a decade, to the day the pop impresario was shot and nearly killed at his famous "Factory" in 1968.

Indeed, by the time Wyeth became a habitué of the Factory, Warhol was in artistic (if hardly financial) decline, churning out celebrity portraits and holding court at intentionally vacuous Interview parties. His portrait of Wyeth (above left) tells you as much: it's "fabulous" in its lipstick-pink way, but the color-field/wall-paint gambit no longer shocks, and the underlying silkscreen could be of Liza, or Liz, or anyone famous, really.  (Unbelievably, Warhol claimed to have spent two months on it!)

"Andy Warhol," Jamie Wyeth, 1976.
In contrast, Jamie's reciprocal portrait of Warhol (at right) spooks you with its psychological depth. Perhaps some of this derives from the artist's seeming awareness of the subtle parallels between himself and his subject (neither man was at home, really, in his own skin). Thus the horrified recoil of this startled corpse recalls (but intensifies) the mood of an earlier Wyeth self-portrait (see post below) - and the artist re-purposes tricks from his remarkable "Portrait of Shorty" to subtly suggest Warhol's inner disarray: his buttons are undone, and his attire and wig are clownishly askew; meanwhile his anxiously aroused dachshund seems to be emanating right out of his abdomen. No wonder Warhol (much like Helen Taussig before him) opined that he wanted to keep the painting in a closet! And no wonder an eventual show of the work in New York won its painter a little overdue prestige.

So while you'll only glance at Warhol's brand statement (it's part of the show at the MFA), you'll be drawn irresistibly into the Wyeth. And in the process, you may notice what I think counts as a small step in the artist's individuation from his father: Jamie's brush stroke is here thicker and more corporal than the Wyeth patriarch's famous featherbeds of dry pigment  - and Warhol's pallor is faintly, but uniquely, citrine.

Indeed, I realized while looking at this memento mori (as it were) that yellow was Wyeth's signature color, his acid answer to Warhol's gay lavender. Yellow actually grounds several of the early portraits (including "Shorty"); but it first fluoresces openly in Wyeth's 70's sketch of Rudolf Nureyev in performance (at top - an image so striking it was chosen as the poster for the production, Don Quixote).

You may also perceive here another of Wyeth's emergent obsessions - savage élan. For the searing sheet of neon gold before which Nureyev is poised ruthlessly heightens his attitude of attack -  he might almost be a bird of prey; and it's worth noting that the artist was far more entranced by the ballet star than he was by Warhol, the art star. Indeed, Wyeth reportedly executed hundreds of renderings of the dancer's vulpine glamour (here we even see a rarely-exhibited gouache of Rudy nude, with his imposing endowment scrupulously mapped by this most precise of painters!).

But the Nureyev portraits in the end are more dazzling than diagnostic; we see the dancer's skin, but don't get under it. The images instead hint at something about their painter, and his own fascinations. For the cruel confidence of Nureyev's pursed profile haunts Wyeth's output to the present day; you can see its echo in the beaks of his many gulls and ravens, and even in the cerrated edges of his shells, skulls and bones. Likewise the blanched alienation he captured in Warhol floats like a veil over the faces he was drawn to paint once he had retreated to redoubts in Pennsylvania and Maine.

These opposed presences are quite evident, for instance, in "Kleberg" (below), from 1984. On one level, the painting is just a sketch of the family dog, a yellow (yes, yellow) Lab; but its odd details transform the picture into yet another oblique self-portrait.  A painted loop around the pliant pup's left eye seems to "target"  him as a painter - or at least as a watcher of the world; and he's placed in a curiously Cézannesque space, bisected by verticals that seem to vanish, and a floor that slopes improbably; meanwhile the books on the tilted shelf behind him are all of significance to Wyeth or his family (even Treasure Island is there).

Stranger still is the fact that Nureyev is there too - at least in spirit - in the skep bee-hive that's inexplicably sitting next to the clueless canine.  Needless to say, its straw is Wyeth's signature yellow - in fact a sickly gold; and it's capped with a vaguely Slavic crown (a last nod to Nureyev, perhaps?). It even sports two beady eyes, a smudge of a nose, and a boxy little mouth, spiked with spindly teeth. Most importantly, we can imagine it humming with internal menace - it's a sallow daemon, sealed away from us, but defiantly alive - and perhaps even patiently waiting.  And it heralds a new, self-conscious trope in Wyeth's art: after he withdrew to the Brandywine and Monhegan Island, he became obsessed with conjuring a sense of mystical presence - often non-human presence - in his images of the natural world.  But I'll consider that development more fully in the third and final part of this series.

"Kleberg," Jamie Wyeth, 1984.


  1. "Somehow Warhol had instinctively known that retail all by itself could fill the vacuum left by society's various post-war liberations - indeed, that it had to fill it. Which proved arguably the most powerful insight since the forging of modernism..."

    Well, maybe, but I'm not sure that insight is Warhol's, exactly. If it were, wouldn't he have stuck to making actual commercial illustrations rather than gallery pieces ABOUT commercial illustrations, etc?

    In any case, thank you for this fascinating essay (or rather the first two thirds of it thus far)!

  2. No, the idea wasn't his alone, but he became the poster boy for the movement because he expressed it most forcefully. Or perhaps most bluntly.

  3. Not quite what I meant. I didn't intend to dispute Andy Warhol's status as the most important representative of his genre. My point was that Warhol, and others like him, may have talked a lot about commercial culture, but in practice he still assumed that a comparatively elite artist - himself - was needed to reveal its meaning. (Hence he displayed reproductions of Campbell's labels at the Ferus Gallery instead of trying for a job in Campbell's design department.)

    That approach may still be influential in academia, but as far as the rest of the world goes, it seems to me that the more important development came slightly after Warhol (and amounted to an - unconscious - refutation of him): Mass commercial entertainers creating work that demands to be taken as seriously as high art, while remaining mass commercial entertainment, for better (the Beatles) or worse (Christopher Nolan's Batman movies).

    (And actually, Warhol's views may at this point even be passé in academia, where the trend seems to me to be toward taking pop culture as seriously as it now takes itself, and then judging it in terms of political correctness.)

  4. Okay - maybe. Warhol DID do commercial illustration, though (he specialized in shoes, and did several album covers). And the "art" angle he devised operates (of necessity) at a conceptual distance to the thing itself. As Raphael gave us the Madonna, and Watteau Harlequin, so Warhol gave us Brillo.

    You're right that people like the Beatles and Christopher Nolan (God help us) try to mix high and low, but that's not actually what Warhol was doing, nor could their work be read as a riposte to his - because his ideas are oblique to theirs (whether or not they realize that).

    You're right, of course, that the academy is mad in its clueless way for high/low mash-ups. But Warhol was smarter than the academy, you know.