So there I am in the Andrew Wyeth exhibit at SAM. Everyone around me is 100, and I am ready to look at seven paintings and touch them with my brain and form a brand-new Wyeth-shaped brainwrinkle (it has pigtails). I am ready! Andrew Wyeth died this year, SAM's wall tells me, "leaving a legacy of deeply personal paintings that nevertheless have shown, through their enduring and wide popularity, that they have the ability to touch us all." So what you're saying here, wall, is that Andrew Wyeth is popular because he touched us, and he touched us because he's popular? We like him because we like him? He is beloved... because he is our beloved! And there I am and everyone is 100 and it's just so goddamn fusty and I'm already annoyed. But Andrew Wyeth, I am to discover, semihappily, is not fusty. Andrew Wyeth is toootally perverted and creepy! And you love him, America, because you're perverted, too. Even if you're 100. Do not deny it!
Andrew Wyeth was born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the son of N. C. Wyeth and some lady. The elder Wyeth was a prominent illustrator—a realist, like his son—and protégé of Howard Pyle, the man who invented what pirates look like. (Scarves! Boots! A billowing pantaloon!) Due to his frail and illin' constitution, young Wyeth was homeschooled, leaving him ample time to study art with his father and develop a love for the hills and moments around Chadds Ford that would dominate much of his career. He married a woman named Betsy and painted her many times. In 1945, N. C. Wyeth's car stalled on some train tracks, and that was the end of N. C. Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth never stopped being sad. His paintings are, weirdly (getting to that), mainstream American institutions: They hang on the set of Mr. Rogers, in Snoopy's existential doghouse, in the living room on Step by Step (!?). M. Night Shyamalan based his execrable film The Village on Wyeth's bleak Pennsylvania aesthetic. Wyeth's Wikipedia page also reveals that he recently received an award and a hug from George W. Bush. Wyeth eventually died while sleeping, of being old. That was in January of this year.
Of the seven paintings in SAM's Andrew Wyeth: Remembrance, five are from his Helga studies: a body of 247 works painted between 1971 and 1985 (plus one final addition in 2002). The subject is Helga Testorf, a severe, pale-eyed German beauty, and Wyeth painted her—in secret from his wife and Testorf's husband—in various nude and clothed and intimate and creepy ways for YEARS. The Helga paintings are contextless: Black Velvet (1972) is a reclining nude floating in a plush, bottomless black depth—like space, or sea. She could be dead. Her pelvic bone juts. Farm Road (1979) stares, too close, at the back of Helga's head as she ascends, askance, a bare brown hill toward a stand of lonesome trees. Braids from 1979 (which you have lately seen on SAM's posters all over the goddamn city) places Helga, in three-quarters profile, again in front of that black vacuum, her face unsettling and brooding (SO MUCH BROODING!). Taken alone, each might be pretty. Taken together, the effect is unsettling. Everything seems dead, even the alive things. It's actually scary.
Wyeth's technical skill is astounding—I basically had to shove my face into the painting and through the wall to believe that Black Velvet was a watercolor. These pieces are fucking magnificent. But the prettiness is a trap.
"Painting was his way of giving forms to memories," the wall says. A couple of 100-year-old biddies walk around, talking about Wyeth and Helga and love. "He had to love her," one biddy gushes. "Wyeth's realism was a means to an expressive end," the wall continues. "A way of securing fleeting and elusive sensations." Is anyone in here paying attention? These paintings are terrifying, biddies! These are paintings of obsession, not love—powerful and icy, hyperdetailed, joyless. And gorgeous, of course. Meticulously gorgeous.
The voice of reason comes from Wyeth himself, in the placards accompanying each painting. Instead of more curatorial boilerplate, SAM has paired each image with a quote from the artist, which range from actually-kind-of-awesome self-aggrandizement (to paraphrase, because it's funnier: "You guys, this is like my BEST PAINTING EVER!") to confirmations of exactly the visceral human creepiness I'd suspected all along. "I always remembered the hair on the back of her head," he says of Farm Road. "That spot on the back of her neck where the hair would start... I peered at this part of her deeper and deeper. I became enamored of that spot." Yeah, dude! I know you did! And then, taking it all the way: "Of course, there's a penetrating and throbbing sexual feeling in all the Helga pictures. I felt the country, the house, Germany, the dreamy moist rich female smell—the whole thing." The candidness is a relief. Love and biddies be damned—Wyeth is one of us.