The headline in New York Times, reporting the death of Andrew Wyeth at the age of 91, said he was both ‘revered and ridiculed.' That's a fitting phrase to use, not because it's true, but because it was clearly the way Wyeth wanted it. He spent his whole career positioning himself at right angles to the artistic flow, somewhere on a vector with Jackson Pollock on one axis and Norman Rockwell on another.
He took some negative assessments, for sure. Hilton Kramer, the distinguished critic for the New York Times, used the word ‘excremental' when describing Wyeth's color. Wyeth did certainly have a taste for browns. But there were plenty of accolades in the other direction. The British historian (and a bunch of other things ) Paul Johnson, in his history of America, counted Wyeth as the finest painter of his generation, and referred to Pollock as a ‘good linoleum designer.'
Certainly Wyeth had a career management and publicity machine that was, for quite a while, the finest in the land. Even Andy Warhol couldn't reach into the middle-American heartland the way Wyeth did. He not only was on the cover of Time magazine at least twice, he also managed to be on the covers Newsweek and Time simultaneously. That was for the Helga paintings, which were among his least interesting work but still netted a handsome profit for Leonard E. B. Andrews, the publisher who bough 240 of the Helga works and resold and resold them a few years later. Andrews, a wealthy publisher, died on January 8. His obituary is also in the Times today.
But in recent years, or even decades, Wyeth was neither revered nor reviled. A great many people, myself included, don't take him all that seriously as a great artist. He was a good artist with a success machine that made him nearly a household word and netted him a handsome living, and there are a couple of museums who are dedicated to his work, one of them in Maine. He did pretty well.