"Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart," wrote Robert Frost in a short poem, "The Strong Are Saying Nothing." His subjects brood over their rural American surroundings: "There may be little or much beyond the grave," the poem concludes enigmatically, "but the strong are saying nothing until they see."
Frost might have been describing the loneliness of Andrew Wyeth's subjects. The 61 paintings of America's best-known contemporary painter, at the Royal Academy of Arts (through Aug. 31) for his first major European exhibition, capture similar moods.
Like Frost, he delights his audience with an apparently easy realism. And like Frost, he is deeper than he seems. A regionalist addressing universal themes, he is a powerful craftsman and moving feeler of his medium. Like Frost's, his work lives gloriously among enigmas.
The first enigma is the one professional art historians most dislike: He is both undeniably excellent and smashingly popular. So strong is the common belief that art demands suffering -- and that greatness comes only through penury, perversion, or the pangs of deeply felt injustice -- that Wyeth's admirers have almost to apologize for his reknown, to explain that great art really can flow from a reasonably balanced life.
The second enigma is that Wyeth is popular with the bright, new middle class of gregarious Middle America -- the America that the British, in particular, are apt to distrust. Yet his paintings are not in that sense modern. He is no photorealist of chromium cities, but a patient analyst of the decrepit. Rarely is anything new in the dull-hued solitude of his landscape.
The third enigma is that, without having traveled much beyond his favorite haunts of Chadds Ford, Pa., and Cushing, Maine, he has articulated an immediately recognizable America.
This exhibition of works in watercolor, dry brush, and tempera, chosen by his art-dealer son, Nicholas, is well-hung and well-selected, although it leaves out the strong and interesting body of near-abstractionist work.
When the image is thoroughly distilled, one is content, before such strength, to emulate Frost's farmers and say nothing.