On the first day of class, a thin, tall, meticulously dressed older man, clean shaven, hair combed back, a twin of T.S. Eliot, instructed us to buy a History of Modern Art by Aranson. He told us to open our notebooks, he turned the lights down and he turned on the slide projector. A scratchy image of a rhino appeared, one facing to the left with an elongated horn.* “Do you like this?” he said. He let us linger for no more than 15 seconds. Another panel appeared: in the foreground, women in white caps, one praying; in the upper left of the painting, an angel wrestling a man on a red field.** I do not have a clear memory of the other panels that followed. I do remember the professor’s tone — dry, aloof, sometimes sardonic, confident, a lover grown dispassionate but still in love. We were off. That semester changed my life. Sometimes a love affair begins with coy glances and uncertainty, but here it began in a darkened room where we gathered three times a week to look at pictures.
Great paintings are direct and pressing. They demand a response from you. When Guernica was still housed at MOMA, I remember turning a corner and entering its room and stopping, stunned by its size and the immediacy and drama of its images. I stayed in that room for an hour; pressed to go by my companion, I kept saying ”A little more time, just a little more….” I remember moving back and forth, closer and then at a distance, looking at one section and then spiraling my sight out to look at all of it, looking for its key, seeing many keys, sunk in its power to mesmerize and provoke.
A friend introduced me to Andrew Wyeth’s work. In my first year of teaching she took me to the Brandywine Museum. I had been aware of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations, especially for Kidnapped and The Last of the Mohicans, I had seen photos of Jamie Wyeth’s portrait of JFK, but I had never seen one of Andrew Wyeth’s pictures. Once exposed, I could not see enough. I had never seen a whole series of paintings that caught some essential wildness just under the surface of life. Look at Wolf Moon or Evening at Kuerners or New Moon and you sense this intermarriage of the beautiful and sinister. Look at Christina’s World, his most iconic picture, and Young America and you see images so powerful in their communication of loneliness and yearning that no explanation is needed. The connection between viewer and painter seems delivered telepathically – image to heart. He and Jamie, especially in Jamie’s paintings of sea gulls and cattle, ravens and Cat and Orca Bates, capture a feral undercurrent of the territories we take for granted, those familiar images we pass, barely noticing, each day
Do not stop. Andrew is so multifarious in his ability to evoke every kind of response — a shuddery wry whimsy as in Witching Hour, elemental contrasts of power and shelter as in Two If by Sea, beauty and dangerous mystery in Night Hauling. I love his testaments to the power of a frank natural beauty to enrapture us, to give us insight into what feels like the atomic structure of transcendence as captured in Pentecost and Wind From the Sea. In those two paintings his images of wind, light, sea and filigreed nets and a curtain refute all the darkness one finds elsewhere in his work. The feral universe does not belong in those worlds. Those are paintings of such tremulous joy.
I saw Wyeth one time. Several years ago I drove to the Brandywine on a weekday to fill myself up again. His painting, Snow Hill, was positioned at the entrance to his rooms. He stood very close to it, a senior curator (I assume) at his side. He was darkening the ribbons that connected men and women to a maypole around which they danced on a snow covered hill. He was very small and stood no more than a foot or two from the painting as carefully traced the ribbons with a thin brush. He smiled at some of the patrons of the museum as they glanced at him, me too. No one bothered him. He was working. We had seen Wyeth in his process. That was enough.
I cannot do him justice here. I want you to get up and go look at his work and NC’s and Jamie’s and at great pictures wherever you find them. I think we long to see…everything, anything, that can cause us to gasp and wonder, and thus our eyes can never be filled by enough beauty.
*It was gradually revealed to us that this painting was probably 20,000 years old and discovered in the Chauvet cave in France.
** Vision after the Sermon by Paul Gauguin