The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present “Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic,” an exhibition that surveys seven decades of the artist’s achievements, from March 29 through July 16. The retrospective will include more than 100 works, among them tempera paintings and watercolors from the 1930s to the present. It will explore in-depth Wyeth’s frequently unadorned and often haunting images – ranging from natural forms like rocks and trees and humble containers such as buckets, to stark rooms, windows with curtains lifted in the breeze, bare hills and people lost in deep introspection. The works, many of which draw upon his boyhood experiences in and lifelong affection for the Brandywine Valley near Philadelphia and on the coast of Maine, are lent from public and private collections across the country and from the private collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.
“Andrew Wyeth’s highly personal art has been etched in the American public consciousness as an expression of rural life for at least half a century. It is also important to realize that Wyeth is very much part of a larger picture: his work has been deeply informed by the early tempera paintings of the Italian Renaissance, the charged realism of Thomas Eakins or the broad brushwork of Franz Kline, among other artists whom he admires,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic” will explore the major themes that have occupied Wyeth’s art over the past 70 years, including nature studies that frequently evoke the transience of life, images of vessels and thresholds that metaphorically signal various kinds of transitions, and still lifes and portraits that may suggest or record the people who have appeared in his life.
Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil Jr Curator of AmericanArt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will oversee the exhibitionin Philadelphia. She notes that throughout his career, Wyeth’svision has been built in part upon the tension between observationand imagination: “Studying his subjects closely, he adds power bysimplifying and distilling his image. It’s often the elimination,not only of figures but of extraneous detail, that allows theartist to back away from realism and press forward the emotionaland artistic message of painting.”
The exhibition reflects Wyeth’s intense engagement with his various media over time. Among the works on view are 58 paintings in egg tempera, a technique so time-consuming and intense that Wyeth completes only about two paintings a year. It also includes 27 watercolors, among them early ones that convey an exuberance reminiscent of Winslow Homer, preparatory studies that inform Wyeth’s more finished temperas, and other mature, independent works in which closely observed subjects are often anchored into complex compositions with earth-toned washes.
There are 16 works in drybrush, an exceptionally meticulous watercolor technique that in Wyeth’s hands may often resemble tempera. Five pencil drawings that are studies for larger works and two rare early oil paintings that reflect both the young Wyeth’s dexterity and his father’s teaching are also on view.
While the exhibition opens with a number of Wyeth’s early works and closes with some of his most recent, little-known ones, it is organized largely into thematic sections in which early, middle and recent work is juxtaposed. The exhibition reflects what guest curator Anne Knutson, in her catalog essay, calls “the complex intersections between objects, the body and memory, delving into the common experience of things triggering reminiscences.”
Highlights of the exhibition include many familiar imagesdrawn from a lifetime divided between Chadds Ford, Penn., and Mainewhere Wyeth, now in his 89th year, spends his summers. “Winter1946,” completed just a few months after a train in Chadds Fordstruck Wyeth’s father, the famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, reflectsthe artist’s response to his death. It shows a young neighborchased by his shadow down a sunlit hill, perhaps a metaphor for theartist himself, alone and adrift in a world without his father.Michael Taylor, the museum’s Muriel and Philip Berman Curator ofModern Art, notes in his essay, the boy careens across “the bulginglandscape that has become the living embodiment of N.C. Wyeth’smassive, heaving chest.”
The exhibition contains several works from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including “Groundhog Day of 1959,” one of Wyeth’s best-known paintings. It will be exhibited in context with preparatory drawings and watercolors that chart Wyeth’s working process leading to the finished painting. The tempera conveys the sense of pale sunlight raking across a windowsill and striking the flowered wallpaper of a kitchen in the Kuerner farm, Chadds Ford, where a table is set for one. According to Foster, Wyeth himself regards it as a portrait of his neighbor Karl Kuerner, and she quotes Wyeth saying it was his attempt to “get down to the essence of the man who wasn’t there.”
Wyeth’s often elliptical approach to his subjects is also reflected in some of his recent work, including an ambitious, large-scale tempera of a river scene completed in 2003. Horizontal in format, “The Carry” depicts a surge of water roaring over rocks, turning through a narrow passage and flowing into a calm expanse. It conveys the strong motion of water toward the softly lit bank and woods in the distance. Wyeth recently described this painting in highly personal terms, identifying aspects of himself with the contrasting lights and darks and alternating moods of turbulence and peacefulness that coexist in the picture, and suggesting the continuity that extends through the artist’s career.
“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic” is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, with the collaboration of the Wyeth family and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before opening in Philadelphia, it is on view at the High through February 26.
Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (cloth, $49.95; paper, $35) is now available in the museum store, by calling 800-329-4856 or by visiting www.philamuseum.org.
Tickets for “Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic” are on sale now. Tickets include a complimentary audiotour.
For information, including special discounts and other promotions, 215-235-7469 or www.philamuseum.org.