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Wyeth's Windows at National Gallery of Art

Andrew Wyeth, "Wind from the Sea," 1947. Copyright: National Gallery of Art.
Andrew Wyeth, "Wind from the Sea," 1947. Copyright: National Gallery of Art.
National Gallery of Art

Disregarding accepted categorization and plentiful definitive academic study, the National Gallery of Art has gone rouge in the newest interpretation of beloved scenery painter Andrew Wyeth. Presenting an obviously realistic, figurative painter as a secret abstractionist, the National Gallery bends the rules of art historical categorization and defies commonalities and popular opinion of a genre. In a groundbreaking first look at Andrew Wyeth's artistic obsession with windows and their meaning, the National Gallery of Art presents an exhibition featuring 60 works in tempera, drawings and paintings in "Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In," opening May 4 – November 30, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery poses Wyeth as one of the most famous yet least understood artists in recent American art history. The Gallery investigates Wyeth’s composed obsession with windows (he produced over 300 works in this theme) to provide new insight into a remarkably long career of an enduring icon. The Gallery sees Wyeth’s penetrating approach to subject matter as “non-literal realism,” contextualizing him among his Abstract Expressionist peers, and notes that his self-described “boiling-down” of the subject of the metaphor of windows, through intense and invasive studies allowed the artist to explore what remains in a painting in the absence of his usual person/portrait-lead narratives. Wyeth’s thought process is what’s really in store for visitors. The Gallery aims to capture the elusive and private artist’s abstract mind in order to make the argument for his “abstract” art, which is no easy feat.

At first glance Wyeth is an obvious literal narrator. His works are depictions from real life. His scenery is familiar and yet, something eerie lurks in every frame. Something unseen stares back at you. Are there ghosts in Wyeth’s farmhouses or is there something far more complex happening behind the veil of the realistic?

Wyeth’s style is more accurately described as selective realism because he often added and subtracted freely from real scenery, which the Gallery poses as a practice in abstraction. In his window series, his haunting, hushed, dislocated scenes provide an abiding sense of place, so much so that his personage work (for which he is known) now feels as though the humans have ambushed his intensely constructed settings. Windows with billowing curtains perfectly capture momentary impressions – without the need of a visible narrator. And yet, the absence of the narrator is felt just as strongly as the scene itself. Wyeth’s windows are a conundrum of complex contradiction and deeper investigation, led by the Gallery, reveals layers of abstract thought.

On the surface are beautifully crafted compositions using advanced mathematical geometry as structure, but layered within are various disjointed personal narratives. The leading painting in the exhibition, “Wind from the Sea” (1947) points the viewer in the location of Wyeth’s father’s death, though the actual place is just beyond the line of sight. Even without knowing this particular layer of the scene a lingering sense of displacement – a haunting feeling of absence permeates the image. The stark coloring and gloomy scene make the viewer aware that something other than looking out a window is actually happening here.

While “Wind from the Sea” is arguably Wyeth’s window masterpiece, “Night Light at Keurners” (1960) drives the abstract argument to a palpable head. The watercolor is mostly recognized for the sticks and mud left on the completed piece, as Wyeth often worked on site. But the work actually pushes the abstract agenda into a more recognizable realm, not for the looseness of the representation, but for the qualifying effect that the painting happens more in the mind than on the page. The singular light illuminating from the otherwise deserted, barren landscape leaves the viewer pondering the presence – but really the absence – of the narrator. The narrator is equally there and not there, present and absent, and demonstrates the tenacity for which Wyeth could penetrate the elusive and work in abstraction.

The repetition of starkness in every window scene suggests that Wyeth was deeply disturbed – intellectually and emotionally – by the metaphor of windows. Also included in the exhibition are a notable amount of doorways present in Wyeth’s window works, suggesting an intensely thorough investigation of the transience of place – specifically of structures where things and people can come and go. Abstract thought permeates every inch of Wyeth’s window explorations, calling for a deeper engagement with the work.

Metaphor. Symbolism. These are not ideas copyrighted by abstract artists, so what makes Wyeth’s windows abstract? Maybe seeing the abstraction in Wyeth requires a redefining of the term. Wyeth’s subtle approach to abstraction forces the viewer to reconsider the concept entirely. Can what seems on the surface to be literal representation actually be abstraction? Wyeth’s windows demand a deeper look to reveal a surprising side of an American favorite.

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