Thursday, March 15, 2012

`Rust, Cold, Snow, Those Hills'

“Wyeth, by being the almost perfect draftsman, a characteristic not honored by most artists today, makes some viewers think that he is portraying what is strange or unique in seemingly ordinary things. A viewer from an agrarian culture understands that Wyeth is really showing that there is no such thing as ordinary. Everything is extraordinary when seen with total authenticity.”

At last I have an opportunity to share this passage, first encountered last year, from “Andrew Wyeth,” an essay by Gene Logsdon collected in The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (University Press of Kentucky, 2007). Logsdon is proprietor of The Contrary Farmer and runs a farm in Upper Sandusky in north central Ohio. He was working as a writer for The Farm Journal when he first met Wyeth in 1969. That year he published Wyeth People (returned to print in 2003 by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press), based on interviews with the models Wyeth used for his paintings. During his lifetime, Wyeth (1917-2009) was phenomenally popular and phenomenally scorned by critics, even good ones like Hilton Kramer. Logsdon writes:

“To the champions of modern abstract art, paintings of barns, farm landscapes, livestock, anything rural [familiar Wyeth subjects] smack of the backwater, of hickdom, of ignorance, of lack of taste. No distinction is made between one painter of rural life and another. Critics who can differentiate between Picasso and his lackluster imitators won’t do the same with Wyeth and his imitators.”

Here’s my excuse for bringing up Logsdon’s assessment of Wyeth, an artist whose work I always enjoy: In one day, by happy serendipity, I read poems about specific Wyeth paintings by two good poets. The first is “On Wyeth’s Below Dover” by Moore Moran (The Room Within, 2010):

 “A nameless sloop in sedge grass points
Off toward a sea the sand dune hides,
The blue leached from her hull and joints,
Her cabin echoing old tides 

“That curled her here to tamer winds.
Her boom protests but little: short
Jibes shudder to corrosive ends.
Forgotten in the local port,

“She leans like deafness to the cry
Of summering children come to race
Her decks with games of ‘Capt’n Bligh,’
Till dusk-borne dinner bells sound truce.

“The silence holds. A humid moon
Visits her hull then climbs away
To light, atop a nearby dune,
Her sightless march into decay.”

One of the enduring attractions of Wyeth’s paintings is their stillness and silence: “The silence holds.” The sloop, like Melville in his final years, is landlocked within sight of the sea. Wyeth painted Below Dover in 1950. The other poem is “Wyeth's Milk Cans,” rhymed syllabics in haiku-like stanzas by Richard Wilbur (New and Collected Poems, 1987):

“Beyond them, hill and field
Harden, and summer's easy
Wheel-ruts lie congealed.

“What if these two bells tolled?
They'd make the bark-splintering
Music of pure cold.”

Milk Cans is a small drybrush from 1961. Both poems are devoted to silent, unpeopled paintings about discarded objects. Both mention bells and guide our eyes from their foregrounded subjects to Wilbur’s “Beyond.” Wyeth’s austerity of means is nicely captured in “Music of pure cold.” In his Autobiography (1995), Wyeth writes of Milk Cans:

“Pictures happen; you don’t sit down to make them. One day I was down at Adam’s farm in Chadds Ford and saw these intriguing rusted cans in the cold near that building where Adam kept his pigs. Rust, cold, snow, those hills.”

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