Thoughts on Jamie Wyeth, Expectations of the Artist, and the finished Stormy Sailing painting

Recently I read a couple reviews of the Jamie Wyeth retrospective at the MFA in Boston that were critical of the show, the main point being that his work as a whole lacked a unifying purpose, that he was technically exceptional, but without the capital A in Artist.

I suppose thinking of his work in these terms makes sense given the show was about his career, but I also wonder if that’s what we should expect of an artist. If you took Winslow Homer’s work over his life, would there be that unifying purpose? Maybe the struggle and wildness with man and nature, but does an artist have to have such a theme? I can understand the critique of Jamie Wyeth, but some of the comments across multiple reviews (one in the Boston Globe) about his gull paintings seeming like a nightmarish version of something you might find in a seaside New England town’s local arts gallery seemed a bit off. His gull paintings were remarkably potent, and the Inferno painting showcased also in video was incredible to me. They had a twist to them that clearly separated them from what could be called “tourist art.”

Wyeth had a range of styles, including expertise in the Wyeth family way, but I see this range as potentially representative of an exceptionally talented artist trying to find his own voice among the many he can channel, and sometimes that challenge can be more meaningful than the challenges of one who clearly has his own voice. I see it as representative of this larger human struggle to understand ourselves and our own potential.

I wonder about my own art. I have neither the skill not potential of any Wyeth, but that isn’t the point. I, like anybody else, am just trying over time to figure things out. Painting happens to be a pretty fun and phenomenal way to do that, being useful and influential beyond just the problem of conveying and conversing visually.

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Here, in this sailing painting, I am working through a style that I have been pursuing over this year–one of somewhat rough brushwork, of materiality in watercolor. Watching the Wyeth Inferno video at the exhibit and also available on YouTube got me comfortable being more aggressive on the brushes–Princeton Neptune faux squirrel brushes happen to be great for this because they are high quality but very affordable, so you can really mess around without worrying about wrecking them. You don’t need them to keep the point, that’s what the sables of stuff synthetics are for. You can see my work on the sail especially comes from scrubbing the brush into the paper, letting it dry out. I like showing that I used a brush, letting some of the effort come through because that also makes the work more interactive, more conversational–or at least I can pretend it does.

Part of the narrative about Jamie Wyeth is a son trying emerge from the shadow of his father. Another part, as Andrew Wyeth put it, was a competition. Andrew Wyeth said in his biography, “When you get fame–you see, I’m in competition with my son whether I want to be or not. Just the fact that I exist as a painter.” I don’t like either of these characterizations. I prefer not in the shadow of, or in competition with, but in conversation with.

Thanks for reading.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Jamie Wyeth, Expectations of the Artist, and the finished Stormy Sailing painting

  1. Phyllis October 25, 2014 / 8:44 am

    Don’t you think any artist goes through a developing stage until he finds himself? As he grows in technique, he develops a syle and a theme which matures through implementation. It’s same with composers. I look at Stephen Sondheim’s first work in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was written in college and represents his sill side. Then he contributed just the lyrics for some numbers in “Gypsy” which conform to the com[poser’s style. Then a much more serious side to match Leonard Berstein in “West Side Story.” And finally his own, slightly macabre viewpoint in “Sweeney Todd,” when he is writing both words and music to another style in “A Little Night Mu;sic.”
    He is yet to develop a recognizable syle a la Gershwin. And Richard Rodgers wrote completely different music with Larry Hart than he wrote later with Oscar Hammerstein. Their partners altered their styles.

    I’m taking a Johns Hopkins OSHER class here at Asbury in the development of Operettas and how classical composers influenced Offenbach and Strauss and eventually Jerome Kern.

    Aren’t you still in the developmental stage and haven’t entirely found yourself? Give yourself time to grow when painting takes over your life completely.

    Just a grandmother’s videwpoint.

    • coreyaber October 25, 2014 / 9:05 am

      Very interesting. Even the greats are ever-changing as the cases you highlighted show, and all the better for it. Maybe this is being unfair to Andrew Wyeth, but it seems he doesn’t change so much over time. Perhaps that’s why I had a connection to Jamie Wyeth a bit more.

  2. Suzy October 25, 2014 / 1:44 pm

    First of all, I think you’re wrong about not having the potential of a Wyeth–you do! I do! We all do! It’s the getting there that’s tough.

    Secondly, your sail painting is wonderful. Before I had scrolled down the whole way through your posting, I thought it WAS a Jamie Wyeth that I’d never seen before. Keep at it!

    • coreyaber November 1, 2014 / 6:17 pm

      Thank you! I am very glad you like the sailing painting. I suppose Wyeth had a certain ability that most of is do not–the ability to only pursue his art. I remember seeing an interview with him in which he said he’s really a boring person because all he does is paint. I doubt he’s boring, but being able to have such focus is an important factor

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