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Is Wyeth Worth It?

August 31, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

CHADDS FORD, Pa. — 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.

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.

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.

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