Friday, April 21, 2006

Wyeth exhibit at PMA

Growing up, I was captivated by Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," due in no small part to my parents' appreciation for the work and its title, but also because it's just a great painting. The woman alone in a field has her back to the viewer, and based on her long hair and dress, I often assumed it was a young girl. Only later did I look at her hands and see the hints of gray in her hair and learn that the woman who posed for the painting was actually much older than a teenager. "Christina's World" was hanging in the MoMA when last I visited, and it's not included in the new Andrew Wyeth exhibit, "Memory and Magic," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But a similar confusion surfaces in two reviews of the show by Times critic Ken Johnson and Inquirer critic Ed Sozanski. Johnson looks at the painting "Otherworld" (2002) and sees "a girl in a thickly padded, leather-upholstered seat." But Sozanski seems to know better: It's "Betsy Wyeth, the artist's wife, [sitting] in a small passenger jet." In some ways, this differing interpretation reflects the reviews as a whole. While each makes good points, Sozanski reads more like the passionate sportswriter praising the hometown hero (the Wyeths' beloved Brandywine Valley is just outside the Philly suburbs), while Johnson feels more like the national-paper scribe parachuting into the art outpost for a look-see. While Johnson isn't entirely dismissive, he looks at the Wyeth family's wealth, as evidenced by the private plane in "Otherworld," and finds his work to evoke the look of high-fashion lifestyle magazines: "'Groundhog Day' would make a fine illustration for a Pottery Barn ad. Insert a model in rugged clothes, and you would have a Ralph Lauren ad." ... "Call it Martha Stewart existentialism." He criticizes Wyeth for painting the country without depicting much rural strife: "the world he constructs starts to seem too airlessly tasteful and imaginatively closed up." Meanwhile, Sozanski seems to be more accepting of the idea that Wyeth's paintings evoke "dreams, feelings, sensations and omens that can't always be explained." In contrast to Johnson's Pottery Barn comparison, Johnson writes: "Although many of his paintings involve people, or are straight portraits, I find 'object' paintings like 'Groundhog Day' more moving and intense, more pregnant with sublimated emotion." I've seen many of the Wyeths' works at the Brandywine River Museum (the late N.C., father of Andrew, and Jamie, the 60-year-old son of Andrew, are the other famous artists in the family), but I'm looking forward to catching this show in Philadelphia with these two differing reviews in mind.

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