Friday, January 16, 2009


This week we lost Andrew Wyeth (1917 - 2009), noted abstract expressionist painter. A formidable artistic source, his work was comparable to some of the most avant garde work of the last century.

For example, contrast this painting by Wyeth...

...with this image by famed abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell:

Or, compare the shimmering effect of this painting by Wyeth...

...with this very similar painting by radical artist Jean Dubuffet:

Here, a painting by Wyeth...

...might be compared with this work by famed minimalist sculptor and video artist Richard Serra:

Some people even insist they can find realistic images hidden in Wyeth's lovely designs.  

As for me, I'm not sure I see it.  But I guess abstract art is kind of like a rorshach test. Everybody sees something different.


Blogger Gringo said...

Most lovely shapes & forms! It was time I started to like an abstract painter! Snicker.

1/18/2009 7:34 PM  
Anonymous Mark Nelson said...

Wyeth was a great composer and narrator, I suspect History will revere him long after it has forgotten his twentieth century "peers". Rest in peace, Andy.

1/18/2009 9:23 PM  
Blogger Josh Sheppard said...

Thanks for that post David. Wyeth's book Unknown Terrain has more abstract stuff like this. For anyone who thinks they are familiar with his body of work, it is a great eye opener. Glad he did what he did, despite the era he lived through.

1/18/2009 11:28 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

There is a thought-provoking article by Terry Teachout in today's WSJ -- --

the author speaks to one of Wyeth's strongest suits, his ability with abstract composition. He also speaks to obviously false austerity of much of Wyeth's narrative works. It's a nicely balanced article that should be read before mounting an apotheosis.

1/19/2009 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Myron / said...

Wyeth. Man where to begin. I’ve always been enamored by his genius use of watercolors and dry brush. As an artist, he’s shown me why the camera can never really be a comparable filter for human experience as the hand containing sensitivity or the eye educated on emotion. I love his work because it was raw, devoid of modernist gimmicks and full of robust artistic struggle.

The drawings of Helga, he tossed aside and walked on in his studio, alone hold an immense amount of inspiration for the budding young artist and any holding a pencil with hopes of recording the world around them. I’d only hope to be making art in my 90s.

1/19/2009 3:08 PM  
Blogger Daniel Peci said...

Wyeth was a realist painter, not abstract expressionist, this should be obvious when looking at his work..

1/20/2009 3:34 AM  
Blogger rodrigoart said...

i dont really think there is any need to compare him to others, we are all convinced of his greatness and genius, and certainly no need to slap on labels like 'abstract' to spur on an already tiring discussion of that art form.

Lets just see more of his brilliance. Let us readers judge for ourselves.
rest in peace

1/20/2009 6:11 AM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Another fine post David. I couldn't count the number of times I've tried to get across the selfsame point about Wyeth and others, that not only are great "realist" artists great draftsmen, great metaphor-makers, great patternists, and great narrative thinkers, but also great abstractionists. Now, rather than get into a usually fruitless 2 hour conversation, I can just direct people to this bell-clear blog post of yours!


1/20/2009 8:38 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rodrigoart, if you believe that "we are all convinced of his greatness and genius," you have not been reading many of Wyeth's obituaries. Some influential critics still view him as a sentimentalist and a dinosaur whose pretensions to abstraction were embarrassing.

And if you think there is "no need" to discuss whether Wyeth was a realist or an abstract painter, allow me to introduce you to Daniel Peci who writes that it is "obvious" that Wyeth is not an abstract painter and to Josh Sheppard who thinks it is equally obvious that Wyeth did abstract art. Perhaps you can work it out with them.

Actually, I view this post as little more than holding up three Wyeth paintings to compare them with three avant garde paintings. I kept my own commentary pretty darn sparse in the hope that readers would, as you said, "judge for yourselves." I am glad you feel up to the challenge, but you never did tell us what your judgment was.

1/21/2009 4:57 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Gringo, Mark and Josh. I appreciate your comments.

Rob, that is an excellent obit for Wyeth, one of the best I've seen. Thanks for pointing it out.

Myron / Artninja, Wyeth's life-long dedication to painting is one of the things I admire most about him.

1/21/2009 5:04 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, there are so many examples out there where it is obvious that the abstract design is the measure of excellence for a "realistic" painting. yet, people have a hard time getting past the representational subject matter. And if you try to turn a realistic painting upside down to isolate the design, they think you're being a smart ass.

Glad you're out there!

1/21/2009 5:09 AM  
Blogger Josh Sheppard said...

I wouldn't call him an abstract expressionist, I'm just glad that Andrew Wyeth used abstraction as one of his tools. So many realists during this era experimented with it, I think at first as a reaction to modernism, but with mixed results. Rockwell says he experimented with Dynamic Symmetry, which does nothing for me, but eventually he tried things like the semi abstract trainyard out the diner window in Saying Grace. Without the rise of these moderns, I wonder if Rockwell, Peak, Briggs, Fuchs, etc wouldn't have been just a little less brilliant? I actually think that Loomis also experimented with Dynamic Symmetry, for the same trendy reasons as Rockwell, but just wasn't able to move beyond it, and thus find something useful in other forms of modern painting. I'm not an academic, I just appreciate what I think is good abstraction in realism when I see it. Anyone ever seen Christian Schellewald's SF LA book? Great subtle abstractions, the real stuff, if you ask me!

1/22/2009 2:10 AM  
Anonymous bhanu pratap said...

Andy Wyeth once said" people enter my art/world from the back door i.e the realism, but when it all settles down , you can the see the abstraction"

Me reckons he got to abstraction through realism. I call him an abstract realist, quite an oxymoronish term. But thats what I prefer. Yes his stuff has been , at times, overtly sentimental and narrative, in times ,where art like this(sic) was considered low.
But his brave, modern compositions can be equal to masters from any era.
I can bet on that.

1/22/2009 5:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad to hear of the passing of Andrew Wyeth. He had a fairly unique take on egg tempera. Although I've seen a number of artists try to paint like Wyeth, in both composition , subject matter and and technique, none of them seem to have managed it.
I have to disagree with you about abstract art being a "rorsharch test". A lot of people try to look for the picture or image in the painting. Most abstract artists are not trying to do this. They are focusing on the expressive qualities of the materials. The formal components. They are trying to avoid the illusion of the picture and reinforcing the "thingness" of the picture plain. They (mostly) have chosen this path because they feel other forms of pictorial expression have been exhausted and are now inauthentic. Of course , abstract art can fall into the same condition. Still , they aren't generally pictures that you peer into. You have to read it more as an object. I hate analogies, analogy might be a composer who writes a piece of music, and uses a flute to convey Skylarks in flight and another who writes with no desire to conjure images or meaning outside the formal components of the music itself. Hans Hofmann and Clement Greenberg wrote well on the subject, from a painters point of view. Richard Serra, whose drawing you've shown,( which looks like a sketch for one of his sculptures), has made some incredible, monumental sculptures, some of the few public space art that doesnt look like a waste of money to me.
Very interesting blog by the way, I've enjoyed reading about some artists I've never heard of.

1/23/2009 3:51 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Josh, thanks for the reference to Christian Schellewald's SF LA book. I had not seen it before, but is quite a handsome collection of work-- great designs!

Thanks, Bhanu!

Latest Anonymous, I agree with most of what you say. My "rorsharch test" comment was intended as an (obviously not very funny) joke because I was saying I couldn't find anything representational in an upside down picture of Christina's world. I think your analogy to "a composer who writes a piece of music, and uses a flute to convey Skylarks in flight and another who writes with no desire to conjure images or meaning outside the formal components of the music itself" is a good one. I recognize there is a spectrum out there, perhaps with Tchiakovsky's Peter and the Wolf at one end and John Cage at the other. But I think it is awfully hard to purge an artistic object of referential content altogether. Even the color red triggers associations that the color blue does not. Bold brush strokes invoke experiences in the world around us that timid brush strokes do not. The goal of abstract artists to focus solely on the qualities of the materials is a dandy goal, but awfully difficult to achieve.

1/23/2009 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it so hard for some of these contributors to understand that a realist picture exists both as a picture of 'something' and also as an arrangement of tones and colours, the visual basis of abstraction? I think even great artists like Fawcett and Sickles would shy away at the term 'genius'.

1/24/2009 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's because "abstraction" is a misnomer for some people. It usually refers to the concrete, formal qualities of a painting, and not some anything goes, emotional expression freed from the reality of the work. Certainly it does in Wyeth's case. Not that it reduces meaning which is located in realising that the syntax, the form, is (in most cases) more important than the semantics. Any idiot can paint a still life, but not many people can handle paint or organise one like, say, Chardin.

1/24/2009 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for the post. I couldn't help but laugh out loud at your satire. The need to explain humor can certainly kill a joke, but that need isn't always the fault of the comedian.

Ironically, several notable abstract expressionists admitted to borrowing compositions from George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip.

1/25/2009 12:49 PM  
Blogger Holladay Jackson said...

Hi David...I'm wondering if you disabled RSS feeds or if I simply can't find the link for your blog...I'd love to subscribe!

2/04/2009 5:43 PM  
Blogger Ace said...

I LOVED THAT!! you are a genious!!!!!!!!!! :DD in favorites nooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

3/07/2009 7:58 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Holladay-- I definitely have not disabled RSS feeds nor have I activated one. I'll have to look into it because I would love to have you subscribe.

Ace, I appreciate it.

3/07/2009 9:10 PM  
Anonymous said...

God I love this conversation I've always felt limited that it was all in my head. As far as I'm concerned he is a magical realist 100%. Just cus he likes interesting shapes doesn't make him an abstract artist. Please understand, there's no judgement there. But I think it's clear. Just because his paintings utilize beautiful unique designs doesn't make him a designer, he's a realist painter. That's his endpoint, thats his message the rest is just technique, brilliant and inspired though it may be. As far as I know he never showed abstract work that didn't point/refer to a realist end. All the great shapes, experimentation are just a way of approaching his ends, his own brand of magical realism. I get so worked up when I feel that he is misunderstood, judged. I for one worship him. that doesn't stop me from worshiping Franz Kline the Abstract Painter or Junior the amazing breakdancer for that matter. Perhaps my mediocrity is due to being inspired by so many disparate masters that I have no singular cohesive unified vision direction, but alas inspiration itself it seems is the only worthy object. Thank you for the chance to cathart!

3/12/2009 3:20 AM  
Anonymous said...

I think the proper term for what people are calling "Abstraction" in realist works would be "design elements", because abstraction is when you are somehow corroding the narrative element, but Wyteth's "Abstractions", or Rockwell's for that matter coexist without detracting in the least. Just because there's amazing shapes in your depiction of an ice cream cone competing for your attention doesn't make you an abstract artist. There is no narrative in abstract art, but what the viewer see's, which is it's perfection. It is an oracle a mirror to look at our own mind. Of course were so caught up/addicted to narratives we miss a simple beauty that is pure shape, pure color or you know...whatever.

3/12/2009 3:39 AM  
Anonymous uneducated academic snob said...

Okay I promise this is it. A realist may use "abstraction"(design elements)in service of realism, or an abstractionist may use realism in the service of abstraction which would lead from the beauty of narrative forms and point/serve/abandon everything towards the beauty of pure design. Certainly all artists move in both directions. But most move very clearly in one or the other.

3/12/2009 3:53 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

josspaddock, I'm not sure I would agree that Wyeth was an undiluted "magical realist" but I do think you have made an interestsing and thoughtful contribution to the dialogue here, especially your middle part about clarifying what is abstraction and what is design. I guess I think that the process of abstraction-- in thought and design-- is a hallmark of excellent art, no matter how realistic or literal the images. But you can't just leave the discussion there, or it doesn't advance anything.

About a week after this blog post, I read that Wyeth said "I honestly consider myself to be an abstractionist." (Wall Street Journal 1/21/2009). That doesn't end the discussion either, but it does not surprise me that he felt that way.

Ultimately, I guess I agree with you most about Wyeth, Kline and Junior the amazing break dancer.

3/12/2009 10:26 AM  
Blogger william wray said...

wish I'd been here when this one was still alive. AW said he started all his work as Abstracts...

5/23/2009 10:18 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I really dont think his work is abstract expressionist. There's a subject matter. It has georgeous abstract qualities. You can say the texture's nice or the composition, but he's still got a subject matter in there. Doesn't that go against the definition of abstract expressionism?

7/21/2009 12:25 AM  
Blogger Paul Brickley said...

As I have commented elsewhere because it has made such an impact upon me, my first impression regarding Andrew Wyeth is that no other artist knew the coldness, and stillness, of winter like that man. Abstract elements are often found in works of realism, usually evidenced in reflections. I will always consider Wyeth to be an artist of realism, and to be one of the very few genuine giants of modern art. And whether your natural preference is for abstraction or realism, isn't the purpose of art always to make your world richer and fuller than it could have otherwise been? Wyeth's work does that for me, and I find that to be enough.

3/16/2010 12:45 AM  
Blogger Rodney Jack said...

Its so sad that we lost such an amazing artist Andrew Wyeth. One can see from his paintings that these are no ordinary paintings. He was such an enthusiastic and creative artist. His paintings are amazing.

Art can never end :) we always have new artists and everyone have a different approach towards abstract paintings. Like whose paintings are with specific purpose. Art is a whole new different world that keeps expanding day by day.

12/14/2014 9:48 AM  

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