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An Impotent Dynasty

Wyeth family's leaden schlock on display at the Fine Arts Center



The Fine Arts Center's current exhibition, which opens tomorrow, is titled An American Story: The Wyeth Family Tradition of Painting. As you might expect, it features works by the Wyeths, their teachers, and their in-laws. It might be more appropriately titled The Wyeths: A Century of Successful Marketing.

The family patriarch, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) studied under Howard Pyle, whose beautifully composed, technically superb work dominated American illustration at the turn of the 19th century. Assuming the master's mantle, N.C. Wyeth became as successful as his teacher. Half a dozen large-scale oils, most reproduced as contemporary magazine covers, are on display.

Take a look at, for example, "The Victorious Allies," which graced the cover of The Red Cross Magazine in March of 1919. It depicts soldiers from each of five nations (Great Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Belgium), literally wrapped in their national flags, whooping in joy as the Statue of Liberty rises proudly behind them. It's crude, saccharine propaganda, especially if compared to the dark and anguished art created by artists who actually experienced war, whether as victims or as participants. Clearly, Wyeth knew what The Red Cross Magazine wanted, and he created it. In other words, he was a commercial artist, a technician whose art was the means that he employed to feed his family. It's beautiful, pleasing and empty.

It's particularly galling to see this kind of leaden schlock on display at the Fine Arts Center, whose fine arts director in the '30s and '40s was Boardman Robinson. Robinson also was an illustrator, but one who was appalled by the corruption and stupidity of the inept governments who sent millions of young men to die in meaningless battle. If you want to see art that conveys the reality of the first World War, pick up a copy of John Reed's book, The War in Eastern Europe, illustrated by Boardman Robinson. Unlike Wyeth, Robinson was at the front.

N.C. Wyeth's son, Andrew, not only equaled his father, but far surpassed him, becoming an American icon. "Christina's World" (not, unhappily, on display in this show) is as familiar to most of us as any image in pop culture. Elvis, Mick, Madonna, Mona Lisa, and Christina -- all part of the deracinated, value-neutral artifacts of our American Century.

Andrew Wyeth is, clearly, a pretty good artist, able to create extraordinarily pleasing, and occasionally evocative paintings. The best piece in this show, "Tenant Farmer," showing a freshly killed deer hanging from a tree in a snowy landscape, ready to be skinned and gutted, is cold, bleak and uncompromising. As good art often does, it draws us into a different and dangerous world.

Unfortunately, of the 35 works by Andrew Wyeth in this show, none rise to the level of "Tenant Farmer." Quiet, skillful, subtle, technically superb -- but there is, as Gertrude Stein so famously stated, no there there. Like the French academicians of the 19th century (e.g., Bouguereau), who camouflaged meaningless paintings with noisy bluster, Wyeth camouflages the emptiness of his work with an understated virtuosity. Mind you, he's a fine artist, and these are good paintings/drawings/watercolors, but his artistic reputation is grossly inflated. You have only to compare his portrait of Arthur Cleveland with any portrait by his contemporary, Alice Neel (the subject of an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum earlier this year). Neel's portraits are witheringly honest and deeply felt; Wyeth's are not. In "Arthur Cleveland," Wyeth tried to capture the stringy essence of a down east character; what he created looks posed, stilted, and faintly absurd, a masculinity so patently exaggerated that it might as well be a "Hans und Franz" skit on Saturday Night Live.

Andrew's son Jamie is virtually indistinguishable from his famous father, at least as an artist. Same technical mastery, same questions -- is it kitsch, schlock or schmaltz?

Peter Hurd, who married N.C. Wyeth's daughter Henriette, is a cut above the rest of the family. His "Portrait of Gerald Marr," the property of the Fine Arts Center, is a fine, powerful piece, perfectly evocative of a particular time and place. I liked his sketches of geologists in Wyoming from the 1930s, but was a little put off by an appallingly sentimental lithograph, "The Shepherd's Christmas."

As you exit the show, note that the museum shop has a nice little selection of Wyeth posters -- a perfect complement to the spirit and purpose of the Wyeth show. And what''s wrong with that? Nothing. And why shouldn't the FAC show art that most people will love, and enjoy visiting? Clearly, they should. But be forewarned: The Wyeths are to art what Ricky Martin is to popular music: beautiful, talented, successful and insubstantial. Given the choice, go see the Rembrandts at the Denver Art Museum, or Trey Anastasio at Red Rocks this summer.

-- John Hazlehurst

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