1/16/2009

Andrew Wyeth is Dead

When I was a teenager and knew I was going to be an artist, Andrew Wyeth was the artist I wanted to be.

Other kids worked on cars, went to concerts, played in bands, drank, smoked dope, got laid, scouted, skied, camped, boated, built things. I spent my time in the woods and on Henry Church's farm, drawing and painting anything that could seize my distracted attention long enough to fill a page, learning to listen to that gut-level voice that tells you something in front of your eye-holes deserves further scrutiny.

I bought wholesale into Wyeth's insistence that his work was powered by abstraction. I bought into the possibility of living a life broken off from society, while coaxing that society into buying my armloads of scribbles and paint. I bought into the profundity of old shit: rotting barns, horse bones, rusting, abandoned cars, the timeless undulations of pelt-like fields where houses sprouted, baked in the sun, sagged beneath relentless rain and ice storms, and tumbled into brittle gray slivers before blowing away.

I bought so wholly into anachronism that I became a stranger to my own time. I preferred walking to driving, deep empty woods to the city -- feared cities, in fact -- menial labor over anything that required decision-making and responsibility, folk religion above theologies requiring structured knowledge and discipline.

I didn't figure it out until well into my 20's that the world I wanted to make art for was, on the day I was born, as dead and distant as the kingdoms of the pharoahs. By that time most of the 80's had past me by, along with the opportunities that only come to young, hungry and crazy uninhibited artists.

Sure, I'm disappointed and even a bit befuddled at the bizarre stodginess and melodrama of my young adulthood. But I must admit that it wasn't a complete loss. Truth be told, if you had to miss an entire decade in art, the 1980's was a good one to miss.


And I learned a lot during the long, strange sojourn of my late teens and early twenties. There are some things that can only be discerned from society's fringes.

I learned for example to be suspicious of simplicities such as good and bad, black and white, and to always interrogate them as they arise. I came to understand the viewpoints of people raised
by animals in the guise of parents, whose circumstances drip wretchedness and who can only dream of the freedom I enjoyed as someone who could hold a job and complete a thought. I learned how tiny deceptions breed and multiply until they coat perceived reality and misguide every thought and action. I came to see my culture as desperately sick and self-destructive, but the people living in that society as malleable beings capable of learning and of empowering themselves, who will usually, often at the very last moment, recoil from the precipice of self-destruction.

I can still enjoy "Christina's World," the watercolor reproductions in the book "Wyeth at Kuerner's," vast empty fields in late winter after the leaves have been carried windward, when starlings shoot into the cold sunlight and crow signals echo across the frosted hills. But I deconstructed the man long ago. I saw through the Arches paper and films of watercolor and egg tempra emulsion to the rich kid raised at home under tutors and a doting father. The young man who lived in opulent comfort far from the demands of a job and a world briskly ripening into, then eventually beyond, Modernism. I saw spacious summer and winter estates, sailboats, tweed jackets and turtlenecks, dinner parties with elites whose names are carved into the facades of buildings and monuments across America.

For me Andrew Wyeth and his art have been dead for decades. The moment I finally shoveled dirt on it all so many years ago marked the point at which I began to understand the vitality of my own time, the importance of a critically engaged art that's never satisfied and never rests, and my ability -- my responsibility -- to accept no givens of heritage or circumstance, to open my life and my process to chance, to take control of my relationship with a world of accelerating change.




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