NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 177 | April 1, 2009
THE LOCAL ARTIST:
Wyeth & Peterson
some thoughts on the painter and his setting, in memory of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)—Maine & Pennsylvania, in praise of Charles Peterson—Door County, Wisconsin
by Norbert Blei
“I don’t really have studios. I wander around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me.”—Andrew Wyeth
“The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.” —Charles Peterson
Reading the obituary of Andrew Wyeth one night some weeks ago, remembering the first painting of his I had ever seen–the iconic Christina’s World; recalling all the attention and criticism he received in his years, from “illustrator or artist?” to controversy surrounding the nude “Helga pictures”; considering all a single American artist contributed to the greater good in one lifetime, his eyes focused most keenly on home, the local, the ordinary, I was both saddened over his loss yet grateful how he sharpened my own perspectives of a similar rural setting, pleased and satisfied to be part of a landscape with a quiet, celebrated, ‘local artist’ of our own, Charles Peterson, who daily goes about his work of paint, brush, pencil and pen, putting down images on paper close to prayer.
I am reminded of something Wyeth once said: “What we yearn for are those values that refute our materialism…simple pleasures, country people, solitude, beauty of the commonplace, nature serene…the quietude of the country…Something to comfort our spiritual blight.”
What do we lose, as a country, individually, within ourselves, our ‘place-of-being’ when we lose an Andrew Wyeth? I ask my friend, Charles (Chick) Peterson.
“Of course, the role of the artist evolved with the Paleolithic Age when it was recognized that some kind of “outside help” was needed in seeking food and shelter. Pictographs could communicate such urgencies before the written word evolved; a penetration of the spirit world through a direct appeal to our subconscious, art being more like music than literature (which involves reading and thinking ).
“After the Armory Show of 1911, the trend toward increased abstraction began to take over 20th Century art, and that direct appeal of representational art began to lose dominance. Increasingly mystified viewers came to rely on interpretation by those whose critical judgment was presumed to offer superior understanding of the artist’s intention. The artist no longer spoke directly to our inner beings. Picasso’s “Guernica”, hailed as the major anti-war statement of 20th Century art, doesn’t hold a candle to Goya’s “Disasters of War” as a statement conveyed by the art itself, not what some oligarchic critic tells us what we should be seeing in it. And later, of course, works like Rothko’s panels communicate nothing beyond simplistic color harmony, one of the most elemental ingredients in anyone’s art. Generally, the ordinary person loses confidence in his own reactions to art and turns to aesthetes for guidance in an experience he could have ‘felt’ for himself in the stone age.
“I like to think that direct appeal still obtains. I know from reactions to my own work that it reminds viewers of their own experiences in life, really completing the process I began as a kind of ‘conversation’ between us. They bring their own life experience to the viewing process, which then reminds them of aspects of ordinary life we all share. Could I suggest it becomes a kind of humane sharing of life by direct, instinctive means?
“The struggle of the Western world to illustrate its spiritual aspirations reached a peak in the Greek Golden Age, lost its way during the Dark Ages and then gradually was rediscovered during the Renaissance, a representational art which expressed through visual means not only spiritual aspiration but all other aspects of our existence as well.
“It seems to me Wyeth, an exponent of that representational tradition needs no clarification. He ‘speaks’ powerfully to our inner beings. He does so through his utter devotion to the simple life he grew up in, giving us characteristic genre themes carried out with consummate skill. His passing is a significant loss because he was such a famous exponent of that tradition, rivaling in the popular mind the fame of our leading abstractionists and maintaining thereby the legitimacy of his mode. ‘Our mode’, really, there being thousands of first rate painters out there who are simply ignored by a market ruled by an oligarchy of galleries, museums and art criticism.
“I think we lose as a culture when Wyeth’s influence wanes. Especially now with our suffering economy, we need an appreciation of actual life with all its trials but also its real beauties, the kind of expression we see in “Christina’s World.” Warhol’s soup cans won’t help.”
There’s something immensely satisfying about ‘being in place,’ in both the realistic and metaphorical sense. Knowing where everything is. Where one can expect to find it, though time diminishes everything. There’s something equally satisfying when there is an artist in the midst of it all, with the skill, knowledge and integrity to celebrate and enhance life, nature, and the history that surrounds us.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to drive through the rural roads of this county in all seasons, find comfort in woods and water, fields, pastures, animals, old farmhouses, country churches, villages, stores, stone fences, orchards, old farm machinery, people…’objects placed upon the landscape”…and see everything twice: through my eyes in a fleeting moment, and the memory of a Charles Peterson’s painting where everything I feel is there–or was once here. It takes a consummate artist to ‘bring us into the picture’.
Placing objects on the land… Peterson considers the significance of this.
“Fundamentally, placing objects is the most basic step in composing, the effort to achieve rhythm, balance and emphasis. Composition is the essence of any work whether representational or completely abstract, whether it be music or writing or the visual arts, composition is what makes it memorable.
“On the other hand, placement has limitless expressive possibilities beyond formal composition; moving objects closer or further away, larger or smaller, or into surprising locations carries messages to our instincts which powerfully influence interpretation. To use a famous example, Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” places the awkwardly handicapped Christina at a great distance and downhill from the house she aspires to reach, emphasizing the difficulty of her situation. The house, a style familiarly seen in the comfortable old sections of cities, says something to our inner beings about her isolation when we see it standing in disrepair, utterly alone on its hilltop. Placement, far beyond its basic compositional function, really carries the message in this painting.
“As the 20th Century art world moved toward abstract composition, its leading exponents have eliminated inconsequential subject matter and produced ‘pure’ art which speaks directly to our souls. I think pure abstraction can certainly speak, stir, even thrill the soul. But abstract order is basic to all art, including that which can involve the mind as well. Wyeth’s powerful abstraction amplifies his painstaking descriptions of subject matter. This is basic in all effective works of art, like Vermeer’s women seen in quiet contemplative activities with which his exquisite compositions are in perfect harmony.
“I recently ‘placed’ an abandoned buggy on the edge of a scrub woods with snow covered evergreens actually growing through it spokes. Quite aside from forming a reasonably balanced composition, the placement ‘spoke’ to viewers, many of whom said they felt at peace, at ease with the tired old wagon, experiencing perhaps a kind of metaphor for their own aging .
“Art or Illustration? The question has slowly become interesting to our 20th Century minds, increasingly attuned the advance of abstraction. As it exponents concentrated on “pure” form, their audience rejected the traditional skills of representation as ‘unnecessary,’ and felt that those who continued to work in a realistic vein were merely ‘illustrators’, as though excellence of composition was possible only in the abstract. I don’t suppose the questions ever came up before our time; did the Medici accuse Michelangelo of being an illustrator when the saw his ceiling? Or Botticelli’s “Birth Of Venus”? Or Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”? Or Degas’ “Ballet Dancers”? The bulk of art of the Western world has been concerned with people doing something.
“Art or illustration? Now, to be fair, a lot of representational art is superficial, relying on some literary explanation to be understood. We have been inundated with romantically charged ‘illustration’ through our flourishing publishing industry for some 150 years now, and yet much of that has been first rate art; i.e. Homer’s illustrations of the Spanish American War, or N.C.Wyeth’s work, and hundreds of others.
“When Wyeth says he was an ‘abstract painter’, I think he was talking about the vital necessity, the overriding importance of composition , which is fundamental to any effective art (and the summary of abstraction). But his art certainly speaks to our hearts directly without any literary explanation.”
An added, personal pleasure of ‘local identity’ is knowing Chick Peterson as a friend. Someone I can call, write. see. Someone who is always there, in place (village, home, studio) when I need to talk, share ideas (art and politics) and, if I’m lucky, have him regale me with a story only he can tell, inevitably filling his serene, studio atmosphere with raucous laughter.
Wyeth too, was ‘of a place.’ He rarely left Pennsylvania except for Maine in the summers. “You know,” Wyeth said, “after you travel you’re never the same—you get more erudite, you get more knowledge. I might lose something very important to my work—maybe innocence.”
‘Innocence’ returns my thoughts to childhood–Wyeth /Peterson. I recall Chick having mentioned in the past how Andrew’s father, the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, played a role in Chick’s development.
“As a kid I apparently was unusually interested in drawing, which I did constantly, even while brothers and neighborhood kids were playing baseball across the street. I do remember being especially excited by N. C. Wyeth’s wonderful illustrations for books like “Robinson Crusoe”, which our mother was reading to us boys evenings after our homework was done. I had a natural interest in cowboys and Indians, horses and boats, etc. and his stuff was enchanting for me.
“His son Andrew was apparently also ‘turned on’ by N. C.’s work, and one can only wonder at the impact of life at home with a successful, practicing artist. A rather sickly child, Andrew never got beyond the lower grades in school, but took up painting under the disciplined instruction of his father. Currently rare, such an early concentration in one’s field, produced a remarkable mastery of traditional technique.
“I remember Andrew Wyeth’s work was becoming known while I was studying at the American Academy in Chicago after WW II , but I didn’t encounter an original of his until I went to a Carnegie International with some fellow MFA students from Ohio U in 1954. This was one of his Maine barn scenes which deeply impressed me with his mastery of traditional representational technique and I took encouragement from that (at a time when my chief painting instructor at OU was trying to sidetrack me into abstraction, an older man who had gone through the same training as I at the American Academy and who claimed empathy with me facing the new directions of art). Wyeth’s exhaustive attention to visual truth communicated a sense of the importance of ordinary life, of its difficulties but also its beauties. And I think his dedication helped shape my own goals and choices thereafter. It gave me a sense that sharing the experiences of life was a valid effort. I think he gave me courage to paint “what I see, as I see it.” As Manet said, “If it succeeds, it is art. If it fails, start again. All the rest is trash.”
“Wyeth lived in quiet surroundings and painted the life around him. I am reminded of Cezanne who, when urged to move to Paris and join that exciting world of painters, said dismissively, “They TALK a good painting.” After a career as professor and department head, I felt encouraged by such examples to live in this very pleasant place and devote my life to painting “what I see.” I am one of thousands who keep an essentially traditional approach to what interests them. The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.
“Being human, I dream of achieving perfection, but being human (and not Vermeer) I know it will never happen. I take inspiration from painters like Wyeth (who came closer than most of us ever can ) and who dedicated his life to the quest and, in the process, shared with us his insights into the magnificent reality or ordinary life.”