prospect | Andrew Wyeth painted ‘Northern Point’ as if he were a bird of prey
Now that the childishly bellicose relationship between post-war abstract and figurative artists is far behind us, it is possible to see artists like Andrew Wyeth again. Wyeth painted real things, real people. He wasn’t always great. But amid the abstract, minimalist buzz that dominates most post-war art museum collections, a good Wyeth can scream like a bird chirping.
His “Northern Point”, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, shows a lightning rod on the roof of a house. The amber-colored orb halfway up the metal rod, which tapers to a thin dark point, is made of glass – the idea being that if it breaks, you’ll know lightning has struck.
The house, on the island of Teel in Maine, belonged to Henry Teel, a fisherman with whom the artist had befriended. Wyeth (1917-2009) painted it several times. He liked unusual perspectives. Here, as if gifted with a supernatural bird’s-eye view, he imposed his particular brand of hallucinatory clarity from above.
Wyeth was an empiricist. In love with the coast of Maine, he wanted to paint it in all its windswept austerity, its harsh romance. He wanted to capture those blades of sea grass whipped by the wind, the rocks at the bottom of the bay, the waves gently crashing against the shore, the white sky.
Wyeth was a wonderful technician. Favoring egg tempera over gesso, an inherently dry-looking medium, he was parsimonious about color but had a flair for the tensions created by juxtapositions of light and dark, near and far (but all equally sharp), and of a transparent and opaque texture. .
He clearly thought about how to use the paints and brushes to capture the wood grain and weathered texture of the shingles, soaked in salty air and dried in the sun. Part of the interest of this work is the tension between these shingles and the amber glass orb on the lightning rod. The shadow cast by the orb, with its small burst of color on an otherwise relentlessly gray roof, is oddly captivating.
The amazing textures obtained by Wyeth were as often subtractive (resulting from scratching in the paint) as they were additive. No lush Venetian oils with tinted glazes for him. No blustering gestures à la Willem de Kooning. (The Dutchman’s reputation, along with that of Jackson Pollock, was at its peak in New York’s avant-garde art scene when Wyeth painted him in 1950.)
Wyeth’s love of Maine’s pristine surroundings joins a tension in American sensibilities that have felt rural straightness and simplicity as an antidote to both rampant consumerism and the maniacal energy of the American polis – what Saul Bellow (and before him Wyndham Lewis) called it “dumb hell”. .” This makes him, in the condescending but ultimately banal formulas of art world aficionados, “conservative” or latecomer.
But there’s always more going on at Wyeth than meets the eye. We stop looking at his work thinking we have glimpsed, through all the dry clarity of its detail, something secret, shimmering and oblique, like the shadow cast by this orb.