Something Waiting Beneath It...

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Jan 20, 2009 1:58 PM

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape -- the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show." --Andrew Wyeth

A cold Friday in January was the perfect day to die, at least for Andrew Wyeth at 91. It was the very depth of the season as a cold wave swept the country. What perfect timing for a man who luxuriated in solitude. The artist was never much for company, which made him suspect in America, the land of togetherness. To be certifiably American, you must be smiling, preferably in the company of other smiling faces. Happiness, or at least the appearance thereof, is mandatory.

People who need people are the luckiest pee-e-eple in the world!

In this entirely too open society, a citizen is expected not only to believe but broadcast those beliefs. For your beliefs will never impress others unless they are displayed, and what else are beliefs good for? To validate your existence, they need to be regularly spit-shined, polished and rolled out, preferably in a portentous Edward R. Murrow voice:

THIS I Believe....

Not to broadcast your beliefs is to be selfish, antisocial, a miser with your emotions. You must Share Your Feelings. It's good for you. All the advice columnists say so. What's not permitted is to be alone with your thoughts. It is assumed -- which is the most effective form of being decreed -- that one cannot be happy alone. It's considered almost a law of physics.

What a solitary joy to see that law violated by the life and work of Andrew Newell Wyeth (1917-2009). Maybe that's why his windswept "Christina's World" became an -- there's no avoiding the word -- iconic American painting. Along with Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," another study in aloneness.

Was Wyeth a kind of rural Hopper, or Hopper an urban Wyeth, and does it matter? Both painted solitude, exulted in it. Both were abstractionists who were dubbed realists....

But I can feel myself slipping into artspeak, and that way lies nothing good. Wyeth's paintings may appeal to many of us, but he'll never be fashionable. Even his poor fizzle of a scandal -- the Helga pictures -- wasn't much of one, just something for the Art World to talk about in a slow season.

Wyeth was right about the seasons. Fall is so much more satisfying than spring, just as endings are more instructive than beginnings. Better to go to the house of mourning than the house of joy, an ancient sage counseled. The undeniable isn't as easy to deny when leaves fall and the stark limbs stretch heavenward. Yeats said it: Things reveal themselves passing away.

And now Andrew Wyeth has passed. Yet he lingers. As in one of those portraits he used to paint of subjects who aren't there, yet very much are. As he put it, "I think a person permeates a spot...." The country is a little like that now without Andrew Wyeth; his presence permeates. And if it fades, it will be like the after-life of a Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer through their works.

Neither the critics nor his fellow artists much approved of Wyeth. "In the art world today," he said back in 1965, "I'm so conservative I'm radical. Most painters don't care for me. I'm strange to them."

He only grew more isolated in refined circles, not that he minded. But he spoke to the American people. Charles Schulz, the cartoonist of "Peanuts" fame, was a fan. So was Mister Rogers. (When Snoopy's prized Van Gogh is lost in a fire, he replaces it with a Wyeth, and a Wyeth adorned the entryway to Fred Rogers' studio.)

The sophisticated may have dismissed Wyeth, much as linguists dismiss grammarians, or maybe literature in general. His works are insufficiently abstract, unforgivably intelligible, and entirely too popular. As if he had a door to our unconscious. He speaks to too many of us, even if only to reinforce our aloneness.

I've got a fine reproduction of "Christina's World" at home. I haven't seen it since circa 1962, when I bought it on a whim/intimation in New York, and mailed it ahead to Pine Bluff, Ark., where I was moving for a while. How was I to know I'd wind up staying there for the next 30 years or so?

Over the many years since, I've never got around to opening the rolled carton with the picture inside. Now I hesitate to. It's become a kind of talisman glowing in the dark, a genie I don't dare release from the bottle, such is the power of the dream picture.

What will Christina find when she finally crawls her way to the old house at the top of the hill? Sanctuary, surcease, illumination, all of the above? The Angel of Death welcoming her and by then welcomed? Will she finally know as she is known, as Paul says in Corinthians?

I don't know, not now. But for all these years it's been comforting to know that the picture is still there in the dark, beneath the stairs. The knowledge assures, like the thought of somebody waiting at home. The plain brown wrapper remains intact, the old postmark scarcely legible now, but like so much of Andrew Wyeth's work, the picture inside never fades in the mind's eye.

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