Jamie Wyeth show offers breadth, lacks depth in exhibition

Wyeth's "Portrait of Shorty" (1963), painted when he was seventeen, demonstrates his development as a young artist. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Located in the Torf Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), the newly-opened Jamie Wyeth exhibition offers visitors a glimpse into the technically brilliant and compositionally experimental mind of the artist for whom it is named. With a deft and selective hand, curators of the museum have chosen to display pieces of several of Wyeth’s favorite subjects (read: obsessions) from his nearly sixty year career.

Born in 1946, Wyeth’s story is a unique one. According to the MFA’s didactic material, his family members “created unforgettable illustrations for classic novels; painted presidential portraits and official White House Christmas card photos; and even documented the Watergate trial.” Following in creative footsteps, Wyeth has devoted himself to recording the thrilling minutiae of American life, or perhaps more accurately, the unattainable American dream.

Wyeth creates a better, simpler, cleaner America: a version of the country that is easy to take twice a day, with coffee or orange juice or crushed into apple sauce. Now 68, Wyeth has compiled decades of work. His portfolio charts his growth, as well as his struggle to distinguish himself from a family instantly recognizable for their contributions to mainstream American art. The reality of his lifelong career is evident from Wyeth’s childhood paintings that are displayed, the earliest showing a minor command of composition and an unsure and carefree hand in pieces like “Boys Sledding” (1951).

There is a central thread of Americana to which his pieces are all tied. As the MFA supplemental materials state, Wyeth had “a continued engagement with a handful of reoccurring subjects: pumpkins, gulls, Monhegan [the location of a family home in Maine], his artistic lineage and mentors and the various meanings each of these hold.”

Wyeth is technically masterful. There can be no doubt as to his command of line and the photographic, realistic depiction of scenes taken from life. What Wyeth seems to lack, or moreover, what the exhibition seems to lack, is a sense of place, a foundation in centrality and a clear voice with which he is addressing his audience. Wyeth attempts to speak to every American at once, and like a politician running for office, he cultivates a neutral, polite tone and closed-mouth smile with scenes that are quiet, serene and pleasant.

Yet there is a murmured conflict to be found in the hectic scenes of seagulls from “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Pride, Greed, Sloth, and Lust” (2005-2008). And Wyeth’s oil painting “Orca Bates” (1990) even flirts with scandal by including a nearly naked, androgynous teen. Yet his work is only shocking enough to merit a quick intake of breath and then a relieved sigh; there is nothing here to be worried about. 

Largely, Wyeth’s work reads as a portrait of American artistic obsessions — quiet scenes of New England roads and rivers a la Norman Rockwell, rocky shores and seagulls on the coast and, of course, a predisposition to idolize celebrity. Famous faces pepper the walls of one room of the exhibition, among them Lincoln Kirstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudolf Nureyev, John F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol.

In fact, an entire wall of the exhibition is given to Wyeth’s personal friendship and creative relationship with Andy Warhol. Portraits of Warhol show the subject’s signature mussed white bob, as the man himself fades out into the scene around him.

Yet, the strongest piece in the gallery may arguably be a work that was not done by Wyeth at all, but by Warhol. An oil portrait of his friend, entitled “Portrait of Jamie Wyeth” (1976) is close and intimate. Wyeth leans with his head cocked to the side, as though in the middle of an important discussion. In the portrait, Wyeth appears — as the MFA’s description of the painting explains  — to be “posing as if for a Hollywood headshot, or mimicking Wyeth’s own [portrait of] John F. Kennedy.”

And “posing” is perhaps the greatest trick of all. Wyeth’s entire life has been spent observing the greats of American culture, trying to absorb as much of the flavor of the week as possible — obsessions that are so fickle in the art world. Wyeth works to epitomize American life and culture scrubbed-clean, with just a hint of dirt left to be interesting. And, when he thinks no one is looking, he tries to paint himself into the lives of the very subjects he spends his time documenting.

The Jamie Wyeth exhibition will be open at the MFA through December 28th 2014 in the Torf Gallery, 184. Admission is free with a Tufts or SMFA ID.