Constantin Brancusi lasted one month as Auguste Rodin’s studio assistant. The master admired the young talent, but Brancusi realized that he couldn’t make his own way in the confines of Rodin’s atelier. “Nothing can grow in the shadow of a great tree,” he explained.
Jamie Wyeth had the misfortune of growing in the shadow of two great trees, his father Andrew and his grandfather Newell, known to the world as N.C. The Wyeth lineage is a unique phenomenon in the Occident, a three-generation succession of museum-quality artists. Usually we see the son fizzle out with no further heirs. Fra Filippino Lippi or Pieter Bruegel the Younger hardly ought to be torn from the walls, but both display the skills that you could only acquire at the knee of a fatherly guide, and less of the instincts that make skills worth having, and alas, can’t be transmitted. This is the case with Jamie Wyeth as well, though it took an extra generation to get there. It is perhaps of note that Jamie’s first teacher was not his father but his aunt Carolyn, another able student of Newell’s but something of a family oddball. A drawing by a twelve-year-old Jamie shows her fetching the mail while wearing nothing but a blanket clutched to her front, bare behind and all.
Jamie Wyeth’s work also ought not be torn from the walls, but many of them could be politely removed from his overcrowded, cloying career review currently exhibiting at the MFA Boston (through December 28). I just received word that the show has been extended, its opening-day attendance having surpassed even the museum’s extraordinary Degas and the Nude exhibition in 2011. Good for the museum and good for the artist, but it’s too bad that the distinction had to go to a show so liberally peppered with shlock.
I wrote a glowing review of an Andrew Wyeth exhibition that took place at the Boca Raton Museum of art in 2005. His egg temperas aren’t merely skillful, the best ones possess transcendent soulfulness. It wouldn’t surprise me if people continue to admire Andrew’s work, such as the excellent pieces presently hanging outside MFA’s Torf Gallery, for hundreds of years. In contrast, Jamie’s prodigious oil-painting chops are often a glorious windup for a throw that bounces limply to the plate. Awe-striking passages of deft realism are easy to find throughout the show. Wholly satisfying paintings, resolved from edge to edge and full of convincing purpose, are not.
Frustratingly, the best paintings most closely reiterate the look of his old man. Portrait of Shorty (1963) is a stunning likeness of a weatherbeaten fellow with weary eyes and a chin in need of a fresh shave, and very much in the tradition of Andrew’s scrutinized portraits of his neighbors in the Brandywine Valley, with dark shapes in the background providing graphic punch. Lime Bag (1964), depicting a burst sack of powdered lime at the threshold of a barn entrance, is in the same mold. (It is also a superlative painting. The comparison isn’t just a kindly one relative to Andrew, but to Eakins.)
But obviously it wouldn’t do for an ambitious artist to laze around Pennsylvania and recapitulate his father’s oeuvre. Jamie started making inroads into New York City early on, mounting a show at Knoedler while still in his twenties. Andrew passed on an opportunity to Jamie to become one of the artists of Eyewitness to Space, a program of NASA’s to commission artists to produce studies of its achievements. Jamie produced an iconic posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy, on display here. He became a court artist in the Watergate trials. (Catalogue author David Houston spuriously likens the Watergate drawings to Winslow Homer’s Civil War studies. They are not nearly so able.) Shortly afterwards, he did what a lot of artists of the time would have done if they could: he ingratiated himself into Andy Warhol’s Factory.
My previous essay for this publication noted that Pop was the last movement of art to demand explicit acceptance or rejection. In this sense Pop had taken the place of abstraction, which Andrew Wyeth was obliged to reject, although he held it in high esteem and spoke of his desire to instill in his work the “abstract flash” that all good art instantly conveys. Jamie likewise rejected the Pop look but resonated with its interest in the figurative subject, and to some degree its superficiality. A 2005 canvas recalls the bird-like Warhol clutching a tape recorder, while his dandyish dealer Fred Hughes locks eyes with the viewer. Jamie clearly enjoyed the milieu.
Art styles aside, it was a meeting of like temperaments. Warhol was obsessed with his place in American art, and thus welcomed a specimen of Jamie’s pedigree into the fold. (It didn’t hurt that Jamie was a hottie. Warhol was plain about his attraction not just to all that was represented by the Wyeth line, but to what he described as Jamie’s “cuteness,” according to the catalogue.) It’s not widely appreciated how much Warhol valued traditional painting skills. Warhol’s largesse made possible the founding of the New York Academy of Art, a graduate school of figurative painting and sculpture whose curriculum would be recognizable to Gerôme.
In 1976 they traded portraits. Wyeth’s of Warhol is a technical marvel rendered comic by a surprised, nervous expression on his face that matches that of the Dachshund in his hands so closely as to make one wonder whether to attribute a human state of mind to the dog or a canine state of mind to the man. A collar has escaped its button, amplifying the red-nosed sitter’s clownishness. Warhol’s of Wyeth is the kind of insipid insta-portrait that the Factory churned out for twenty years.
Both men were, at the core, illustrators. Being an illustrator is a supremely honorable thing, but capital-F, capital-A Fine Art sometimes slaps the illustrator’s hand away when he extends it. Warhol solved this problem (in a way) by scaling his illustration up to easel size, then wall size, and manipulating the art world into regarding it as museum-worthy. Warhol encouraged Jamie to scale up as well, but it didn’t work for him. Instead it resulted in works like Raven from 1980, an oddly cropped image of the bird that feels uselessly enlarged rather than ominous.
Fast forward to the 2000s, to “the unfolding of The Seven Deadly Sins in its full Sensurround experience,” sayeth Houston. Houston labors to pass the recent work off as cinematic, which is a kind way of regarding its illustrativeness. The ancient vices are demonstrated by seagulls, painted in gouache with grace and verve even in their vulgarity. That’s all that can be said in their favor. The gull paintings are affixed to mats painted with a tacky mash of red and orange, they in turn are dropped into shiny black frames, the frames are labeled with the germane vice in, yes, scarlet letters, and the resulting works are hung salon-style on low-lit purple walls. The installation looks like a nightmare in one of those galleries that sells New England-themed paintings to tourists.
This room also contains a recent series of dark seascapes upon which figures from the artist’s past, Warhol included, stare out at the roiling, mucilaginous, incomprehensibly colored waters. There is also Inferno, Monhegan from 2006, in which a waif stokes a furnace that belches smoke into a Maine coastal landscape infested with barking gulls. Five feet wide and painted on cardboard, it represents Wyeth’s full entry into his Mannerist phase, his grandfather’s dramatic spirit whipping around, unconstrained by the sort of book-cover assignment that would give these impulses a badly needed context.
I don’t want to end here. Wyeth is capable of better things. Let’s retreat to ’80s, when he was painting cardboard instead of painting on cardboard. His chickens nestled in a box labeled for Sears brand motor oil (10 W 30 from 1981) is a quiet wonder, the humor subtle and heartfelt, the light warming, the textures sumptuous. The straw creeps around disturbingly without too much being made of it. Lucien Freud lamented the day he realized that mere scrutiny wouldn’t force life into his paintings, but I believe that Jamie Wyeth could pull it off—the family genius for observation might make it possible. This painting wants for nothing, not art, not drama. But to make more of such works would require an act of faith in looking that the artist may have lost in pursuit of imaginative visions that do not ultimately serve him.