Andrew Wyeth, Looking Out, Looking In

I spent hours at the National Gallery’s show of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of windows, “Looking Out, Looking In”. Entering these four rooms of paintings felt like coming home. The rooms are grouped by place: the Olson House, the Kuerner Farm, Wyeth’s Brandywine Studio, and a final room called Variations.

But it was the paintings themselves that so appealed to me. Spare and austere, with little color, they all include windows but no people. As Nancy K. Anderson describes in her catalogue essay, “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts”, Wyeth went through a winnowing process, deleting elements from the scene in order to better convey its essence. Preliminary studies in the show illustrate this process. For example, in the centerpiece painting, Wind from the Sea, he cut out half of his original study, concentrating on just the window frame.

Wyeth’s goal, as Anderson says, was “to enrich his composition with layers of metaphor and personal symbolism.” Wyeth called Wind from the Sea a portrait of Christina Olson. Famously seen in Christina’s World, here we don’t see the person herself, but we do see the sturdy window frame, the worn shade, and the floating lace curtains embroidered with birds and somewhat tattered.

Wyeth said that he thought intensely about the subject of each painting, letting it “‘go through my imagination until it became a symbol to me.'” The challenge then becomes conveying the personal symbol’s meaning and this heightened emotion to others.

Aside from intensifying the emotion, his method of subtracting elements from the paintings also allows their abstract construction to show through. I had not thought of him as an abstract painter before, but these paintings brought it home to me. The other essay in the catalogue, “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” by Charles Brock puts Wyeth’s experiments on the border of abstraction and figuration into context.

In all my thinking over the last fourteen years about thresholds and liminal spaces, I’ve always thought in terms of doors, never until now about windows. Yet, as Brock says, for these artists, “the window serves not so much as a mechanism for rationally organizing space but as a threshold between self and other, body and mind, being and not being, and in the most profound sense between life and death.”

Brock traces the underlying abstraction in Hopper and Sheeler’s work, as well as Wyeth’s. He also grounds their work in the larger history. Wyeth, for example, was born in 1917 and grew up between the two world wars among local veterans of World War I. He was also well aware of his Pennsylvania home’s experience of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Brock says, “In ways analogous to the plight of soldiers on a battlefield, the role played by the figure in Wyeth’s art, whether it was included or excluded, present or absent, was fraught with existential implications.”

The variety of the paintings shown is stunning. Sometimes we are inside looking out, sometimes outside. Sometimes the view is elaborate and others it is barely sketched in. I realized that the small landscapes we glimpse through a window or a barn door fascinate me in the same way that I have long been fascinated by the miniature distant landscapes behind a Madonna or outside the window or door of a dark Dutch interior. I love the sense of life going on in the background: sheets being spread on the grass to dry, icicles dripping outside the window. My imagination soars, constructing the life taking place just outside the painting.

Of his own paintings Wyeth said, “‘a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive. It pulsates because of that.'” These paintings are indeed timeless and alive. The show runs through November 30.

Do you have a favorite Andrew Wyeth painting?

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