In Andrew Wyeth’s winter landscapes, Pennsylvania seems to groom itself with a cold gray tongue. Down it sweeps, over wide brown plains and farms, over towns and small cities. It gentles the cows that graze in fenced-in fields, the light-eyed farmers who bring them out to pasture, and the crows that guard them both. It smoothes the wheat that covers its body like a winter fur. The state is cleaning, making ready for the spring, when the sunlight will reveal all its dirty and dusty corners without mercy.
Sometimes the wind loses interest in the middle of a stroke. Other times, it licks energetically to the bottom of the state, where it comes up against an old stone mill on a broad lot. For fifty years, this mill was Wyeth’s home. Here the painter died on January 16 of this year, tucked in bed, as stray gusts rattled at the windowpanes.
Wyeth painted this landscape and the people and things that populate it for nearly his entire life. It was a gentle scene, and a seductive one. His America was calm and austere, his Americans vital and strong. So why did critics so vigorously attack them both?
At the peak of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s, Wyeth’s images of Pennsylvania and Maine, where he spent summers, made him both one the most popular artists in America and one of the most disparaged. Art world insiders derided his sentimentalism and “anti-modernism” even as thousands of patrons flocked to surveys of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. The artist’s work was paradoxically controversial given its aesthetic conservatism. Robert Storr, now the dean of Yale’s School of Art, named the painter “our greatest living ‘kitsch-meister.’” Dave Hickey called him pretentious and accused him of working in a palette of “mud and baby poop.” Intellectually, these critics were reacting to the artist’s uncritical populism. Wyeth catered to mainstream tastes, and he displayed none of the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the incoming postmodern artists. His art was humorless, retrograde, inferior—clearly meant for the masses.
But the objections to Wyeth’s work were not just academic. Often they were visceral and emotional. This seems odd; after all, the artist was only painting sparse landscapes and meticulous portraits in a clear and expressive realist style. Yet however strange the debate over his art seems, it had been rehearsed (albeit at a lower intensity) a half-dozen times over the past fifty years. The same argument surfaced every time a “regionalist” artist achieved widespread success.
To be called a regionalist is either to be slandered or to be praised, depending on whom you ask. Detractors take the genre’s name for what it is. They often argue that regionalists are close-minded and lack the creative vision of their more radical, cosmopolitan counterparts. Supporters claim that regionalists do the United States a service by providing it with images of itself. Either way, the regionalist label, which has been in use since the late 20s, generally applies to artists whose work depicts a rural part of the country in an accessible, place-conscious way. When written with a capital “r,” it refers more specifically to Midwestern artists working between the two world wars. As the vagueness of both terms suggests, “regionalism” is less a clearly defined category than a means of signifying that a certain sort of debate has taken place over an artist’s work. The conflict it refers to is, on its surface, nothing more than an art-world iteration of urban-rural tensions.
But with Wyeth, it was more intense. He made the city critics howl. They were not just dismissive; they seemed to be uncomfortable. There was something about the paintings that made them anxious. The artist’s works possessed some hidden and powerful reactionary force—a force that was driving audiences crazy. Some commentators attributed their own unsettled feelings to the artist’s simple-minded sentimentalism. Others slammed him for producing representational art in an age of abstraction.
Few critics talked about the people Wyeth painted—and here, they may have missed the source of their own unease. The artist’s most famous and most frequent models are not “native” New Englanders. They are not recent arrivals like Italians or Mexicans or Jews. They are not former slaves or Native Americans. They are Nordic and German immigrants and their descendents. Some of them were forced out of their native lands by demographic pressures; others fled a blasted Europe in the middle decades of the 20th century. They were hardly welcome here even by Wyeth’s time. In the United States, the World Wars had taken the form “not simply [of] a struggle against Germany, but also [of] a fight against things German,” as the historian Stephen Gross puts it. Decades later, many Americans still distrusted Teutonic and Teutonic-looking newcomers.