The Painted Hype: Clifford Still and Andrew Wyeth

The news of the release of the bulk of Clifford Still’s work to a museum in Denver dedicated to his work reminds me of the hype machine of another wildly overrated painter, Andrew Wyeth a number of years ago.


Clifford Still famously declined to sell any more of his work once he had sold enough to support his family in some comfort, about 180 paintings (note that that must have meant a considerable sum for each). He made extraordinary claims for his work, saying that “a single stroke of paint, backed by a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to may the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.”  That’s an aspiration that borders on the delusional.


He was never one of the greatest of painters of his period, more on the level of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko on a bad day than Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffmann and Mark Rothko on a good day. He managed his career pretty well, getting his work placed in major museums, usually separated from other painters whose work he hated. He stored the many he didn’t sell in Maryland, and said in his will (he died in 1980) that any city that put up a museum for him could have all of them. In the meantime, the works couldn’t be exhibited or conserved. Finally Denver has taken the bait, and now the work will be headed west. I wish them joy of their acquisition.


About twenty years ago the news broke of the uncovering of a ‘hidden’ group of 240 paintings by Andrew Wyeth, all using a single model named Helga. In a masterstroke of public relations, the Wyeths and a collector named Leonard Andrews managed to get the news covered simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. It was the first time that any artist got both covers at once. There were murmurs of a secret relationship behind Wyeth’s wife’s back, and of the paintings remaining hidden for fifteen years. This was all media management, of course. Mrs. Wyeth had several of the paintings in her personal collection, and Leonard Andrews had the rights to publish the Helga images on cards.


Traveling exhibitions were organized, one of which I saw. Whatever respect I might have harbored for Andrew Wyeth as a painter was eroded completely away. His work just isn’t very good. The National Gallery in Washington showed the paintings with great fanfare. The catalog became a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, immune from the hype, took a pass on them.


Wyeth’s reputation, like Grant Wood’s, is based mainly on an erroneous interpretation of one painting, ‘Christina’s World.’ Unlike Clifford Still, Andrew Wyeth has been able to get others to do his hype-building for him. Sometime it’s done by his family. I once witnessed a gallery talk by a granddaughter at the Farnsworth museum. This earnest young woman talked about his broad color range and level of detail. Speaking of a painting of a room with a door and a dog, she said you could see a reflection of the room in the doorknob if you looked closely enough. Wyeth’s color and tonal range are both quite narrow, and the remark about the doorknob was pure bull. One of Wyeth’s few strengths as a painter is his ability to project the illusion of lots of colors when not many are present.


I was reminded of a carnival I once visited in my rural adolescence, in which a boozy middle-aged carny  dressed on the left as woman and on the right as a man, was presented to us as a hermaphrodite. The barker showed us the carny’s right arm first, and then the left, solemnly declaiming the left was much more slender and more feminine the right. The arms were pretty much the same, both flabby and hairy, but us hayseed boobs standing on the grass strained to see them as different, at least for a few minutes. I learned a lot about public relations from that barker. 

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