Spring 2009
Andrew Wyeth
There will be much said and written about Andrew Wyeth. Many will debate his merit and accomplishments. But, for family (and for those lucky enough to be considered close friends) it is hard to imagine a world without Andrew Wyeth. I mourn his passing and continue to think of him every day. 
Andrew Wyeth was more than just the “greatest living American Artist.” he was a joy and an inspiration, he was quick to laugh, with a twinkle in his eyes; and just as quickly, he’d become deadly serious about some news event or topic and he’d look you in the eye to probe your take on the subject at hand. Andy was more acutely alive than normal people. When he looked at you, he could see clearly into your psyche. You couldn’t hide from him. He demanded an honest response. His clear eyes were lit, penetrating and scrutinizing. With those eyes, the color of the sky on a clear blue day, he was able to probe one’s soul. 
Andrew Wyeth’s work has been a beacon of inspiration to me since I was a boy growing up in Georgia. My family didn’t know much about Art, we were only familiar with artists popular enough to come into the house through mainstream media, television, TIME, LIFE, LOOK magazine. Wyeth was one of the very few artists I was familiar with growing up. In 1975, I moved to Philadelphia in hopes of studying privately with him. I was 19 years old. I dialed 411, got his home phone number from information, and I called him. I called at dinnertime; and with the clatter of dinner dishes being washed in the background, graciously; he said that he didn’t take students, but that I could visit him the next day at his studio. I borrowed a car and drove the hour south to ChaddsFord. I asked at the intersection of Rt1 and Rt 100 and was directed up Rt 100 north a mile or so to the Wyeth’s residence, The Mill. When I showed up at the door, I was met not by the artist but by his wife, Betsy, who proceeded to tell me that Andrew wasn’t home and she didn’t know where he was. “But we had an appointment”, I protested, she just repeated that she didn’t know where her husband was. At the time I felt like I’d been jilted, now years later, I realize that Betsy probably really didn’t know where Andrew was, and he was probably off painting Helga. What I didn’t know at the time was that his studio was across rt.1 to the south on rt 100. I’d gone to his house not his studio. Eventually I did meet Andrew Wyeth. I had stayed in Philadelphia and graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy. I learned to paint by studying and copying firsthand Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale, and Thomas Eakins; and I studied privately with Nelson Shanks. I learned my own way of working. I developed my own visual language. PPOW gallery in New York began to exhibit my paintings. In the early 90’s, I had a review in the New York Times criticizing an exhibition of my work. Betsy Wyeth read the harsh review and invited me out to meet her and her husband. She swore that she recalled my visit twenty years earlier when I had startled her, showing up on her door step, as a ‘very intense, wild eyed’ long haired 19 year old art student. In 1991, Betsy offered me the job of making a documentary film about her husband’s life and work; which I gladly accepted. For the next five years I spent almost everyday with the Wyeths. The Wyeths became allies, friends and confidants; buying paintings and giving much needed encouragement. Making the film, “Snow Hill”, gave me the opportunity to learn from Andrew. It allowed me the opportunity to learn ‘why’ he painted, to ask him what motivated him and how he stayed motivated. The process of making the film opened a door to my own life and my own path. If I had been able to study with him years previously, I probably would have been tempted to learn his technical qualities, his stylistic tricks of handling paint, the ‘how’ not, the ‘why’. I realized by watching him every day, that he essentially painted what excited him in the moment. Sometimes he wouldn’t get past the end of his own driveway in the morning, before seeing the light strike a tree or a post, and stop to draw it. If he liked the results and was still interested, he’d do a watercolor of the subject. If the interest held, he’d begin a tempera. Rarely was there a sense of beginning a ‘work of Art’. Usually it was just a notation of a moment, which as it progressed from one medium to the next, reached a more heightened form. Often he’d take walks in the woods around his studio. As he said to me one day,” I’ll be going along and I’ll see a piece of barbed wire with a piece of horses mane caught on it, and it’ll just get me going.” Andrew Wyeth was a Zen master. He was a contemplative. Regarding the patience it takes to discover a painting, he would sit for hours looking; he said, “If you sit long enough, the life will appear.” Wyeth wasn’t “just painting pretty barns”, he was painting the world around him, ”before it would disappear”. He wasn’t painting scenic views, he was ‘illustrating’ his life. Many artists have mimicke d his style, but few have understood what he was doing, and fewer still have been able to transpose it to their own life and artworks. Wyeth’s reputation probably suffered from his populist appeal and the number of bad artists who copied his style. 
In time, I began to feel that Andrew had become my “master” after all. And I became his “student”. It was not an education based on the mastering of technique. It was a continual lesson about how one can live one’s life fully, moment to moment. This is why I consider Andrew Wyeth my “Artistic Father”. 
I very much appreciate the many emails, calls and letters of condolences. It is obvious that the loss goes far beyond friends and family. The loss of Andrew Wyeth marks the end of an era. But it also marks the beginning of another. Born in 1917, the year that Marcel Duchamp inscribed R.Mutt on the urinal, Andrew Wyeth was one of the first of his generation to react to modern art and make a conscious decision to rebel against it. His father, N.C.Wyeth, struggled with being considered an illustrator. He felt unappreciated as a ‘serious’ artist. Andrew watched N.C. as he experimented with many different styles, impressionism and abstraction. It is my belief that Andrew rebelled against abstraction as a means because he saw his father lose his way. Some have considered Andrew an abstract painter. Although, he was often quoted, as saying that he was “more of an abstractionist than a realist”, it is my belief that the quote was an attempt by Andy to gain acceptance by the art world elite who despised what they considered to be provincial, regional realism. One might claim that Wyeth was an abstract painter who painted the real world. His last exhibition at the Whitney highlighted his more abstract watercolors. His art is difficult to summarize in categorization; it has oriental influences with his use of bold abstract negative spaces, his calligraphic use of ink; it has modern influences, the simplicity of Morris Graves and the expressionistic splashes of Jackson Pollack. Regardless of how one categorizes Wyeth, I know first hand that he wanted to “turn ” Art “around”. Near the end of his life, he would often say to me, “It’ll turn, It’s starting to turn, Dontcha think.” But, it wasn’t a particular style which he was lobbying for or against. Because he liked many different types of Art. Wyeth was influenced by everything and quick to respond artistically when he saw something new and unusual. He felt that great Art had to possess an “edge”, by which he meant that some aspect of the painting must grab ahold of the viewer (visually or thematically) and stop them in their tracks. I also feel that he was addressing the cynicism in Art. He believed that the best Art was born out of truth. He believed in objects. He believed that Art which was too cerebral, which was too conceptual, which was not true to the artist’s experience wasn’t of the same value as Art which adhered to and built upon the tried and true Art of the past. But he was never derivative. He was influenced by, Eakins, Homer, Hopper, and his father, but he always learned the lessons they had to teach and he built upon what they had achieved. And yet, there is a quality in a Wyeth painting, which always sets it apart from other representational painting. It has to do with its absolute Originality. It doesn’t abide by the rules of Art. Things, people, objects are unusually and awkwardly placed in the compositions. The subject matter may at first seem quaint or rural, but in his best pictures, it touches a universal chord in the viewer. He literally, paints his own backyard over and over, until he breaks through the simple reality before him making the microcosm into the macrocosm and finding the universal in the most mundane and intimate subject. Ken Wilber has said that a great Wyeth painting, simply, “takes your breath away”. In the end, that’s what great Art is all about, making us stop, making us see the world anew. 
The artistic elite misunderstood Andrew Wyeth. In art schools, teachers rail against work that leans toward a respect for Wyeth. The critics have blasted him for years. He was tough. He was successful, which might be considered the sw eetest revenge. But, maybe it was his popularity which set off the critics in the first place. His ruggedness in the face of criticism was an inspiration to me. He taught me to not care what other people thought. That is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give to another. As far as I could tell, he didn’t give a flip about his ‘fame’, and he certainly didn’t care about money, he would laugh outloud at the prices his paintings sold for, “can you believe it?” he’d say. He only cared about his work, his friends and family. I read sometimes where people don’t believe that he was authentic, that he was a manufactured commodity, nothing could be further from the truth, Andrew Wyeth was the most real person I’ve ever met in my life. Perhaps, Betsy’s efforts to make him a successful and popular artist, her tireless efforts in producing books, exhibitions, films and catalogues, was perceived by some as commercialization. But what Andrew and Betsy had was a rare form of healthy competition , each person bringing something different to the table, and each trying to out-do the other. Betsy provided subject matter for him to paint, set-ups, objects, houses and ever changing landscapes. Wh en he was finished with a painting he would bring it home to the Mill, where they would hang it and look at it for several evenings while the titling process took place. Betsy with her vast knowledge of literature, would skillfully go about the subtle process of throwing out wordplays, each more heightened than the one before, until they together landed on the perfect title. Betsy’s motto was, that one should work on something until it “couldn’t be better.” She practiced what she preached, and so did Andy. 
I’ve always believed that we should try to “leave a place better than the way we found it.” Andrew and Betsy have certainly done that with Chaddsford; opening the Brandywine River Museum, helping establish the Brandywine Conservancy to protect green space, and establishing the Wyeth Foundation. Although they have several islands in Maine, and the Mill and Wyeth studio in Chaddsford, they always chose to live a simple existence. Although they had the means to buy anything and go anywhere, they didn’t surround themselves with unnecessary things, and they only traveled back and forth from Pennsylvania to Maine. They led a simple, rustic, private life, but the larger world is a better place because of the Wyeths. 
Andrew Wyeth’s paintings will live on to inspire generations of artists. And perhaps in the future, those who feel a connection with his art will be afforded the right to appreciate his work without having guilt, or embarrassment, or feeling the need to apologize. Perhaps in the future, students in art schools will be able to freely say that they admire Wyeth, and the response from fellow students and instructors will be the same as if they’d mentioned the name of any other great Master in the canon of Art. 
Andrew is survived by his wife, Betsy, his sons Jamie and Nicholas, his grand- daughter, Victoria, his caretaker and muse, Helga; and the rest of us, legions of friends and admirers for all time.