How to die? A couple of drinks before a good dinner, asleep at 9:00 pm and then a quiet, who-knows-what-dreams death in his bed. 91 years old. I knew Andrew Wyeth. I interviewed him for a book, which will always stand as the most complete of his creative life. We wrote another book together.
I admired him -- but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think he gave a damn about nostalgic America; I think he was one tough, uncompromising SOB of a painter who recorded the people and places in Pennsylvania and Maine who were by and large tough SOBs themselves. Including me.
The obits are flooding in. Virtually all say pretty much what Mike Kimmelman, the New York Times Berlin-based art reporter, says, "Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders.’
But Wyeth didn’t paint a single sentimental picture in his life, starchy or not. Oh, maybe one, the cloying tempera showing all his models dancing around a Maypole.
Wyeth painted like a surgeon cuts. Crisp, flinty-eyed, completely unsentimental. The hell with the patient or the pain of recovery. What’s really there is what you see.
He painted me and in my diary of the event I wrote:
In 1993 I was asked to assemble for a consortium of Japanese museums a retrospective of Andrew Wyeth’s works funded by the newspaper Inichi Shimbun. The Wyeths were delighted, for many works purchased over the years by Japanese collectors would be seen for the first time in decades. They promised to send some of their finest pieces. My Japanese colleagues were geniuses at rooting out paintings and then persuading their owners to put them on view.
For the catalogue, I interviewed Andy, as I had done so many years before with his show I had put on at the Met, and he entitled the catalogue, Autobiography. Houghton-Mifflin picked it up as a book and we split the advance. The Japanese catalogue was sensational with superior color and had a complete English translation of the text. The color was magnificent. On the cover -- one of Wyeth’s only vertical works and thus good for the cover -- was Distant Thunder, the one showing Betsy sleeping under a hat in the tall grasses of their Maine estate and her dog with ears perked at the sounds of a coming storm. Bill Gates saw the cover and soon bought the marvelous work for something like $9 million. The owner told me that Gates asked, "What’s Hoving getting out of this?" Come on!
Seeing the high quality of the show I was able to convince the paper to pay for some of the expenses for one stop in America. Nancy and I arbitrarily decided on some museum in the midwest where Wyeth hadn’t been over-exposed. Kansas City was our first try. Director Marc Wilson rejected it at first -- perhaps because he was a close friend of John Walsh’s and had looked askance at my Connoisseur work and the all-too-revelatory book, Making the Mummies Dance. But Wilson finally accepted it and the show was a smash.
After this effort, Wyeth asked me to sit for a portrait of me that he wanted to call The Director. The sittings lasted for four days over two weekends in June during a vicious heat wave down in Pennsylvania. I sat in his father’s old studio in Chadds Ford dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He sat on a low stool and shed his entire clothing over the hours because of the heat. "I thought the model, not the painter, should be getting naked," I joked.
He answered, "You’re a guy. Your face has always reminded me of some Medici Prince," he told me. "And I want to execute a profile portrait like that Italian who did the profile medal and lion drawings and the strange animals -- you know him, Pisanello."
He began in pencil for this dry-brush watercolor and when he’d gotten the feel and the proportions -- which he measured from my nostrils -- he got his paint box out. All the tubes were mashed and scattered around like a twister had hit. He poured water from some vial into a pair of enameled tin cups and started to wash and scratch and tip the board in all sorts of angles as he worked for three hours until the light changed.
He wanted me to talk every minute -- "for animation" -- and I spun through sections of my life, and being a military nut, the Marine Corps stories thrilled him.
After the first weekend I begged him to show me the results. He did and I was astonished to see in the incomplete image, not me, but my father! He had never met or seen my father in the flesh or in photograph. He had simply captured the family bone-structure.
I saw the portrait again halfway through the second weekend of posing. I beheld a vision of a strong presence, not a likeness, but someone to be reckoned with. It was astounding every time he put the picture into the studio frame he had to see how the colors and the hues worked. It’s a portrait of a type I have never seen him do before -- not a formal portrait but a piece of energy -- ugly in a sense, dominating and ready to explode. I had a distinct difficulty telling him what I saw in it because that would have been as if I were, somehow, boasting. It was powerful and disturbing.
The last day it was hot as hell. I was perspiring like mad and had continually to blink my eyes for sweat was streaming into my eyes. I got a leg cramp and the pain continued throughout the entire three-hour afternoon session. Andy said he was about to crack, was getting woozy in the brain and eyes. I asked him if it’d be okay to try to set up my small video camera and shoot the final dickerings he planned to do.
I placed the camera on a nearby garbage can and sighted through, started the tape and regained my seat of pain. It turned out by chance that if a professional filmmaker had set up the shot it could not have been better. It is the only time in his life that Andy has ever been filmed or recorded while working.
Then he abruptly said, "Just about now with these things, I can wreck it, maybe I should just finish."
"Yes," I cried.
"Here, it’s yours. I give you the reproduction rights, too. Sell it if you want. Crop it. Just use the head for resumes and the like. That white hook of the chair is a symbol of your inherent cruelty. That gray shape in the front is a guillotine blade -- or your tomb, ha!"
My wife, Nancy’s, first impression was dismay at the sight of a man she wasn’t sure she knew after so many years of marriage. Wyeth thought she didn’t like it. But he had misinterpreted her; she admired it as a work of art, something far more significant than just a portrait.
THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.