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    Andrew Wyeth at 82:
Still Going with a Full Head of Steam

by Thomas Hoving
 
     
 
Andrew Wyeth
Dryad
2000
at Frank Fowler
 
Dryad
2000
(detail)
 
Dryad
2000
(detail)
 
Andrew Wyeth
Long Limb
1999
at Nicholas Wyeth
 
Andrew Wyeth
Hay Ledge
 
Andrew Wyeth
Senna, Study for Omen
1997
 
Andrew Wyeth
Long Limb Study
1998
 
Recently I went down to Brandywine, Pa., to a regular dinner party hosted by friends of the painter Andrew Wyeth -- the artist is never told who the guests are going to be. He was surprised and happy to see me. I've mounted shows of his work and have written extensively about him. In fact I'm the only person he'll talk to about his paintings.

He whispered that he'd just finished a large tempera of a new model, Senna Moore, a young, beautiful and voluptuous African-American woman. "She's my new nude model. Come to the studio tomorrow, I've just finished a large tempera of her."

When I walked into the capacious, sunny studio, I knew he'd created a powerful, penetrating image, full of life and mystery, real yet surreal, evocative, dreamy -- and face it, downright mythical.

The lovely Senna is naked inside a giant oak on the Wyeth property that had been rent asunder by a lightning storm so viciously its ragged interior looked like a brooding ancient Greek oracular cave. But the young woman inside the wintry, dried-out tree whose dying branches raised helplessly to the sky is the very symbol of life being reborn extending her arms to the new world.

I knew instantly that at 82 years of age, Wyeth sure hadn't lost his punch or the ability to render nature and humanity meticulously and poetically! This work shows that he is still discovering new things, maturing, getting stronger.

I asked him for permission to publish the work for the first time and here it is.

At first glance I sensed that the tree is strongly attached to Wyeth himself. In the past he has referred to himself by means of a withered leaf fluttering into a window towards an image of the naked Helga or, as in the monumental and serene Long Limb of 1999, a part of the landscape.

Long Limb is an enormous tempera four and a half by six feet. He told me, "That patch of snow is my grave. The withered leaves on that tree are my friends who have passed away."

The marvelous golden glow that emanates from Long Limb is, by the way, four ounces of pure gold that Wyeth got from a famous Venetian paint supplier, mixed into a wash and applied to the entire picture after it was completed.

About Dryad he told me, "It's linked to Long Limb. I have watched over the years as a wonderful pin oak just behind our mill slowly opened up and rotted away -- it was struck by lightning a few years back and really yawned open. Since a small boy I've imagined spirits living in natural things, especially trees. The young woman is not a slave in some kind of underground railroad, but the nymph of trees, the ancient Greek goddess, Dryad. To me, she actually lives in that tree."

Both temperas, which are now for sale, have just been put on view side by side in the Brandywine Museum, along with two stunning pre-studies of Senna Moore running and a leaf. The dealer who has Dryad offers it here for the first time. It is Frank Fowler of Lookout Mountain, Tenn. The price is $3,500,000. Long Limb is offered for $3,000,000 by Nicholas Wyeth, a private dealer who can be reached a (207) 354-6111, or by fax at (207) 354-8782.

This week and next, you might say, is Wyeth time. On the 25th of May Christie's New York will offer a number of works by Wyeth (lots 101, 136, 143, 148, 160) that were formerly in the Joseph E. Levine and Arthur MacGill collections. They are primarily temperas or watercolors of Maine.

I know the paintings very well, having mounted them at the Metropolitan Museum in 1976. One tempera is a standout and highly significant in Wyeth's entire oeuvre: lot 101, Hay Ledge, 1957, ca. 22 by 46 inches, estimated at $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. In the catalogue entry is what the artist told me inspired him to paint this evocative work, which, in a real sense, sums up much of the flinty independence of the people of Maine. "Alvaro Olson [Christina's brother] used to fish, and then he realized that he would be off all day … with his sister alone … he stopped lobstering in one day … and put the dory up in the lof…. I used to see it there for years … it was almost like the phosphorescence that you get in seawater."


THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of artnet.com.