WASHINGTON, D.C. — Visitors to the National Gallery of Art’s “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” are greeted by a masterpiece, the artist’s 1947 “Wind from the Sea,” which structures the whole exhibition. The theme is windows, their recurrence as icon in the painter’s oeuvre, their personal and sometimes hermetic meanings as metaphor, and the larger tension they set up between representation and abstraction in the some 60 paintings, watercolors and drawings on view.
Critics have been hating on Wyeth, who died in 2009, for at least a half-century, and much of the venom was fueled by art-world ideology. Wyeth committed at least two unpardonable sins: one by hewing to a realist style during an age of abstraction and irony and another by achieving extraordinary popular success. One prominent detractor famously dubbed him “our greatest living ‘kitsch-meister.’”
“Wind from the Sea” makes it impossible to accept those reflexive judgments, but taken together with the other works in this exhibition it doesn’t make it much easier to love Wyeth’s body of work. Admire? Absolutely. But the art remains emotionally and often visually monochromatic, even monomaniacal. Wyeth gives us window after window — meticulous and virtuoso renderings — yet the exhibition feels claustrophobic. Despite the subtitle, “Looking Out, Looking In,” the effect is entirely the latter; it’s all looking in, and the “in” we are scrutinizing is strangely dreary and defeated.
“Wind from the Sea” was painted in the ramshackle, 18th-century house of Christina and Alvaro Olson, siblings and friends of Wyeth’s who lived on the coast of Maine. Wyeth was in an abandoned third-floor room of their house, looking out to the sea, when the wind suddenly rustled the tattered remains of a sheer curtain, and crocheted birds on the lacy fabric were caught momentarily in flight. The painting is uncanny in its evocation of a numinous, fleeting instant of motion. Wyeth made a quick sketch on the same sheet of paper on which he had been drawing Christina Olson.
Olson — a stoic, dignified woman who was disabled by polio — was a friend of Wyeth’s wife. She is mentioned in the title of Wyeth’s most celebrated work, “Christina’s World,” which depicts a thin woman lying on parched grass, looking up a low rise to an old farmhouse. Wyeth admired her strength, and she became a frequent subject, or inspiration, of his work. “You see before you the power of the queen of Sweden sitting there,” he once said of the woman of modest means from a remote stretch of Maine. Wyeth also said “Wind from the Sea,” which is devoid of any tangible human presence, was a portrait of Christina.
It is likely it was many more things as well. The diaphanous birds are a spectral presence, and if you study the way the lacy curtain evaporates into the bottom left of the picture, you see clearly this is not strictly a realist or purely representational painting. Wyeth’s miraculous rendering of the main body of the fluttering curtain disintegrates into mere streaks of white paint; it is not a representation of a fraying curtain but a frayed representation of a curtain. The fabric becomes a scrim seen against the hard, straight lines of the window frame, and one feels instantly certain Wyeth aims to capture the disintegration of something far more profound than the textile in the breeze.
You may wonder, perhaps, whether the delicate but rather cheap birds on the curtain represent the dissipating world of representational art, whether we are meant to feel the artist trapped within something that feels both like home and a prison, too, whether the moment captured is a self-conscious one: A man of immense talent, locked in the past, greatly skilled at weaving illusions that are no longer in fashion, suddenly wondering what he was doing, what his life would be about.
Perhaps it’s too speculative to connect all those dots, but the dots are certainly evident throughout the rest of the exhibition, which feels locked in perpetual autumn or winter, preoccupied with isolation and decay, with windows and doors seemingly more about enclosing haunted interiors than revealing light and life out of doors. In one particularly effective 1962 watercolor, “The British at Brandywine,” a toy soldier with a few hints of red about his uniform turns his back on his peers and seems to stride resolutely toward a dark precipice. Who is that meant to be?
The curators of the exhibition emphasize the degree to which Wyeth is engaged with abstraction throughout these works. Wood, walls, grass, cracked plaster, rumpled bed linens, distant hills and patches of sky are all rendered with great freedom; and if you put your nose close to the energetic confusion of paint in these parts of the image, you might believe you are witnessing small-scale irruptions of the more radical ideas that were in vogue in New York art circles at the time. But it is always contained and often is the geometry of the window that seems to keep it at bay.
This limited flirtation with messy gestures and abstract dynamism is more like the atonality in Hollywood soundtracks used for dramatic effect and color but not integral to the larger purpose of the work. While Wyeth can be rather daring in these little sallies outside the representational comfort zone, there are some rules he will never break — light and shadow, for example.
No matter how far he pushes some ideas, no matter how much he bends the rules, he will never forgo a strict treatment of the play of light and shadow in these rooms and across the forms contained therein. Illumination, so often the thrill of his greatest paintings, begins to feel like an obsession, or entrapment, as you see more and more of his lesser ones.
The exhibition is designed to drive the viewer deeper into Wyeth’s technique, his variations and elaboration of recurring themes and subjects. But the cumulative reductionism of his work, the austerity of its dun-colored palette, dulls the mind more than it sharpens the eye. Compare the experience of looking at a lot of Wyeth with looking at Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” a series of purely abstract paintings in black and white, made more than a decade later. Both are hermetic. But the cumulative impact of Newman’s work pushes one deeper into its small variations and details while giving a sense of transparency to something beyond.
Wyeth, who banished modernity and people from these paintings, drives you away from his own work, and leaves you feeling entirely shut into the gallery space, and shut out of his life. There is a masterpiece here, but it remains as cold and isolated as the Maine coast where it was made.
“Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” at the National Gallery of Art through Nov. 30. For information, visit nga.gov.