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IS WYETH WORTH IT?

The discovery of Andrew Wyeth’s “secret” paintings of Helga Testorf (“Sheepskin” is at right) stirred an avalanche of gossip and romantic speculation. Calendar’s art critic takes a hard look at this curiously troubled series by America’s most popular realist painter.

Americans are so obsessed with the oom-pah-pah of success that it is somehow perfectly natural they would also develop a shadow tradition of admiration for failure. We love noble losers, from Willy Loman to Jack Kerouac to Billy Jack--guys who seem to live by the motto, “I never let the rules get in the way of doing the right thing.”

The only thing we revere more than glittering winners and flinty loners are people who somehow combine the two qualities into the chimera of successful failure. The attraction is not simply perverse or paradoxical; the blend of winning and losing gives its subject an aura of moral beatitude and tragedy. Marilyn Monroe was a successful failure, but the Kennedy family is certainly America’s prototypical representative of failure-in-success.

Public worship of these people is not, of course, adulation of the real people but of their mythos--their media image, which is a kind of artwork combining elements of fact with elements of legend. There is always the danger that these modern demigods will be sentimentalized into schlock.

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In the art world the undisputed patriarch of the Noble Failure Party is Andrew Wyeth. For three decades he has symbolized the aesthetic right wing of American art by painting tight, realistic rural scenes against a tide of urban abstract art. For three decades he has both ignored and manipulated the mechanisms of the art Establishment, remaining as head of his own tight little dynasty in the green farmland of Chadds Ford. He is the son of the swashbuckling illustrator N.C. Wyeth and father of Jamie Wyeth, whose best work to date was a portrait of John F. Kennedy. (One detects certain similarities between the two clans.)

The local Brandywine Museum is a virtual Wyeth operation, and the artist’s position as a local cult figure eddies out all the way to Philadelphia, 25 miles to the northeast, where a word against his art is liable to get you your head back on a platter. Sometimes one suspects that Pennsylvania is using its love of Wyeth to atone for its indifference to the genius of Thomas Eakins.

For all his artistic cussedness, Wyeth is probably the most authentically popular of living American painters. Critics like to say his sensibility is irrelevant, but he represents a huge contingent of artists who show in galleries that critics don’t visit and an audience that stretches across the American heartland far away from the precincts of urban privilege, discrimination and refinement.

For all his popularity and artistic cussedness, Wyeth has proved irresistible at the highest levels of the art establishment. “Christina’s World” is a major icon of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. The Met owns a portrait. On and on.

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Recently the uniqueness of Wyeth’s position was dramatized when a “secret” cache of paintings was unveiled in the media--some 240 works done over a 15-year period from 1970 to 1985, all of a single female model named Helga Testorf. Even granting the sluggish climate of news in mid-August, the response of the press was astonishing. Prime television time was devoted to the “Helga Paintings,” Time and Newsweek devoted their covers to the story. The National Gallery announced plans to show the collection, and Harry Abrams agreed to publish the whole caboodle as a book.

There was a sensational subtext to the story. Wyeth, it was said, had kept the paintings secret even from his wife, Betsy. A number of the works were nudes, and the blond model clearly of proportions that might excite sexual interest. Had Wyeth, now 69, carried on an autumnal romance with his model, who worked as a housekeeper for local families?

All the while cooler heads were wondering what the hell was going on here. If Claes Oldenburg suddenly announced he had 250 works he hadn’t shown anybody, one would simply assume that he had done what most professional artists do, which is to hold back examples in order to profit from future rises in prices. As to sleeping with models or not sleeping with models without telling one’s wife, that has gone on since time immemorial. Picasso never made the cover of Time for having an affair with Marie-Therese Walter or not having one with Dora Maar.

Observers detected a delicate odor of rat. Implications of publicity stunt began to lace reports. Whatever that may all be about, one thing remained clear: Andrew Wyeth is the only artist it could have happened to. He is a votive image of American traditionalism. The idea of his having an affair has vectors somewhere between the fabled J.F.K.-M.M. liaison and the elegiac romance between Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford.

Far more troubling to a small minority--who thinks that all considerations around art begin with the art itself--was the fact that amid the risible spectacle of reporters swarming over pastoral Chadds Ford looking for a chickie in the great man’s bed nobody seemed to be looking at the art. One West Coast critic got sufficiently aggravated at this yawning gap in the reportage to load himself into a jet and blast off for a look.

The bulk of the Helga series was purchased by a thoroughly nice publisher of legal newsletters named Leonard Andrews, who is 61, drives a big red Mercedes, drinks Korbel champagne at lunch, lives in an 18th-Century stone farmhouse near his offices in Newtown, Pa., and has strong if somewhat innocent opinions about art of the " . . . but I know what I like” persuasion. Last year he started a project called the National Arts Program, which is intended to encourage grass-roots talent and subvert the art Establishment. Andrews believes that everyone has a spark of creativity that needs encouragement. Buying the Wyeth series (for several million dollars) provides him with exactly the right household god to hover about his populist ideals.

Andrews confirmed the West Coast critic’s suspicion that no other professional scrutinizers had up to that point come to actually look at the art. “You are the first,” he enthused, looking like an English country gentleman with a Texas accent. “You have a worldwide scoop.”

The poor man had obviously been talking to too many reporters.

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He briefed the critic with a look at reproductions of the Helga images divided into roughly 25 thematic groups like “Cape Coat Studies.” It became apparent from large numbers of relatively minor and related studies and a little rudimentary math that in fact the Helga series really consists of about 25 really substantial pictures. Spread those over the 15 years and you get quite a different picture of Wyeth’s relation to the model from the “intense,” “obsessive” aura built around it by the press.

The actual works are stored in the vaults of the Brandywine Museum. One called “Lovers” is on public view but the rest will remain closeted until unveiled at the National Gallery next May.

Viewed on sliding wire-mesh racks, the Helga paintings mainly reveal Wyeth’s characteristic talents--and a galaxy of his grave artistic shortcomings.

Wyeth’s art is soaked in the fear of failure. As an American art it broods on the erosion of the country’s most cherished traditional values. Where the land should be green it is brown. (The real landscape is lush.) Where there should be families and children there are individuals in isolation as haunted as any urban existentialist and even more alone.

As a personal expression, who knows where the fear of failure comes from? Is it the universal dilemma of the artist son who never feels equal to the artist father no matter how hard he tries, no matter how many museums own his work or magazines put it on their covers?

Wyeth’s art seems to know its limitations without being willing to settle within them. There is one nice honest portrait of Helga that is vintage Wyeth. It has the refinement and quiet intensity of a Holbein, and the model’s big-boned beauty is dignified and gently dreamy. It is a painting to make painters take notice, but maybe not one to impress the credulous.

Much of the time Wyeth’s art has a strain of barely contained weirdness that seems to rub off on the model. In portraits with her hair down she looks like a combination of Botticelli’s Venus and the mad Ophelia updated. Her pale blue eyes and blonde lashes give her the air of a troubled mare about to stampede. She often looks ticked off and long-suffering, averting her head from the viewer. Imagined as the record of a love affair, it looks like a troubled, quarrelsome business.

Several views show Helga outdoors in a winter landscape; her heavy coat and fur hat look Russian, and somehow the whole series reminds one of the film of “Dr. Zhivago,” self-consciously romantic and authentically troubled.

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All of which proves the relationship between Wyeth and the model was intense, but nothing about the nature of that intensity. Most of the time her fuming seems simply that of a patient, tired woman kept posing too long by an artist more obsessed with his work than with her comfort. There are elements of erotic reverie in nudes like “Overflow” and “Black Velvet,” but it does not crackle between them. It stays a fantasy in the artist’s mind. He sees her as a Russian, a black woman, a man, a symbol of physical vigor.

At best Wyeth is sensitive, neurotic and accurate. “Sheepskin” is like some primitive 19th-Century realist’s vision of depression. “Letting Her Hair Down” concentrates on the texture of a breast that is too soft, clinical and almost repellent.

Too much of the time Wyeth is overcompensating for his shortcomings. He draws a beautiful contour and is wonderful on mid-light modeling. But he cannot turn a volume in space and his compositions are so reliant on relative relationships that half the time--especially in the watercolors--if you cover up one well-drawn bit the whole becomes completely incomprehensible. He flails about with over-scaled gestural tree trunks and spattered grass--tired formulas he’s used for decades to liven up exhausted compositions. The result is a spurious sense of poetry and drama that is as lugubriously flashy as verse by Rod McKuen and as truly inbred and decadent as the city art it is supposed to contradict.

Wyeth is capable of better, but his unwillingness to play it straight makes him into one of art’s way stations. Like Modigliani or Dali, you admire him somewhere along the way when you are 17, but after you’ve seen Velasquez or Eakins he doesn’t often have much to say.

The Helga flap wasn’t worth the candle, but it points to a need that the artist is trying to fulfill. His existence as an American phenomenon cannot be discounted. He stands for an elegiac strain in our character that will always demand the existence of an Andrew Wyeth. If he weren’t there we’d have to invent him. As a matter of fact, I think we did.


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