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Profound or provincial, American realism searches for meaning

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FOR a few years after World War II, American painting stumbled about looking for its bearings. Regionalism was dead, as was social-action painting, and the few independent voices still around from prewar days lacked the will or the clout to redirect American art. Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, and a number of others continued on, unaffected by all the turmoil around them, and the few newcomers, such as Jack Levine, Morris Graves, and Hyman Bloom, who might have sparked an American Renaissance, were either too private or not abstract enough to capture the fancy of the importan t tastemakers.

Abstract Expressionism solved the problem by assuming command and bringing the center of world art from Paris to New York. While that may have been good news to those who accepted the new movement, it was close to the kiss of death for those who did not.

Except for a handful of established independents -- and even those artists suffered to a degree for a while -- anyone who refused to climb on the bandwagon of the Abstract Expressionists was doomed to near-oblivion as the 1950s began.

Among those most affected by this wave of art-world dogma was a young painter by the name of Andrew Wyeth, who had first made a name for himself in 1937 as a watercolorist and who had, by the early 1950s, established himself as the most popular of all American painters and the most visible exponent of nonmodernism in the United States.

All this, of course, did not sit well with those who felt that everything representational in art was dangerously reactionary, and that popularity was the ultimate proof of artistic mediocrity. If Wyeth was mentioned at all in the critical literature of the postwar years, it was to be dismissed as irrelevant or as nothing more than talented illustration.

In fact, he was then, and he continues to be now, one of America's very best artists, and one of its most committed.


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