Art: Welcome attention for a lesser-known Wyeth

Carolyn Wyeth , above, shifted stylistically over the years, to the modernism reflected in her 1944 oil, "Open Window." More than 40 paintings and drawings, as well as 10 portraits of her, are on exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum.
Carolyn Wyeth , above, shifted stylistically over the years, to the modernism reflected in her 1944 oil, "Open Window." More than 40 paintings and drawings, as well as 10 portraits of her, are on exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum.

Carolyn, Andrew's older sister, painted quite differently and had an independent personality.

Posted: February 08, 2009

Over three generations, the Wyeth family has produced five painters, three of whom have achieved national stature. Andrew, who died Jan. 16, became the most famous, not only for the remarkable longevity of his career but also because a number of other painters have trod in his stylistic footsteps.

His older sister Carolyn, who died in 1994, was not one of them, although she, too, was trained by their father, N.C. Wyeth. Instead, Carolyn became the anti-Wyeth, both for her independent and sometimes rebellious personality and because her paintings often don't look very Wyeth-like.

She, like Andrew, drew her subjects from her immediate surroundings, yet her visual vocabulary is bolder and frequently more formalist in design.

Brother and sister both sublimated emotion, but with different intensities. Carolyn's pictures are typically more powerful in this regard. Her crisp contrasts of shape and texture and her selective deployment of vivid colors, bright light and deep shadows communicate deeply felt passions.

Carolyn hasn't received as much exhibition attention as Andrew or her nephew, Jamie, so the current show of more than 40 oils and drawings at the Brandywine River Museum is a welcome opportunity to reconnoiter some less familiar Wyeth territory.

The show also contains 10 portraits of Carolyn, including two by her father, three each by Andrew and her older sister, Henriette, and one by her former husband, Frank Delle Donne.

Like her siblings, Carolyn began to absorb academic principles, particularly of drawing, from her father as a child. Exhibition examples of such studies indicate that she mastered them. Yet as the exhibition demonstrates forcefully, she resisted becoming an academic painter.

Beyond that, she shifted stylistically over the years, from an exuberantly artless still life of flowers to the folksy regionalism of the landscape Dancing Telephone Pole to the seductively ominous seascape called Dark Shore to the insistently modernist geometry and symbolism of Open Window.

Echoes of other artists in her work are varied and sometimes surprising. For instance, the painting Up From the Woods, a partial view of the Wyeth homestead seen from the depths of an adjoining woodland, made me think of how Horace Pippin employed strong contrasts of dark and white for dramatic effect.

A trio of tabletop still lifes from different decades, which would be austere except for their bold tablecloth patterns, recalls Cezanne's tilted planes, as do the color blushes in a portrait from 1930. If Carolyn didn't take anything directly from Cezanne, whom her father admired, she was certainly aware of modernist currents and willing to experiment with them.

Characterizing Carolyn as the "anti-Wyeth" isn't meant to deny traces of the family bloodline in her work. The most noticeable connection to Andrew are views out windows, as in Spare Room, and abruptly cropped buildings. She also used mundane single objects such as bottles, jars and chairs as subjects.

As Carolyn explained in a interview with writer Richard Meryman in the catalog for her 1979 show at the Brandywine, such paintings expressed cherished memories of childhood and her family. Princess's Room, a straightforward still-life of a bedside table with lamp and book, could be such a reminder of when she cared for her father during an illness.

If this exhibition presents a true synopsis of her career, then it should be judged to have been uneven and inconsistent. At her best, however, Carolyn could be a powerhouse. The minimal still-life Open Window, just a rose on a tabletop against a white sky, and several similar still-lifes built around a death mask of the poet John Keats, combine compositional rigor with emotional gravity.

One senses from this show, as well as from the Meryman interview, that Carolyn Wyeth didn't aspire to the level of fame that she believed sapped her father's creativity. She painted for the purest of reasons, to express her most intimate feelings and to memorialize her life's treasured experiences. That spirit makes this show uplifting, as well as intriguing.

Dreams to believe in. Familiar cliches about size - that it doesn't matter, that big things come in small packages - aptly describe "Lucid Dreaming," an exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum featuring work by five artists and one group.

The show comprises only 13 works installed in the museum's smallest gallery, but the quality of these is such that one quickly abandons any thought of a cursory pass-through.

This is due mainly to a dance video called Here by a collaborative group called Subcircle. The film runs for 26 minutes, but if you stop to sample it you're likely to sit for the duration.

Here eloquently encapsulates the show's theme, ways in which people daydream about implausible realities and how the human body becomes central to them.

The film stitches together a series of vignettes in which ordinary daily routines such as shopping in a market or attending a house party become opportunities for choreographed interactions. Some sequences are clearly imagined, while others are more ambiguous.

The peregrinations of a central female character, including walking in the gardens of Sans Souci, Frederick the Great's palace outside Berlin, tie the film together into a rumination on how people can, or might, interact physically. Subcircle's Nicole and Jorge Cousineau deserve considerable credit.

A 10-minute animation by Stacey Steers, Phantom Canyon, is less successful because it lacks any points of contact with common experience. It's a fantastical narrative involving a damsel in continual distress from monsters and symbols such as a heart pierced by scissors.

Steers' energy is admirable; she made more than 4,000 collages from bits of old engravings to create the Monty-Pythonesque animation. Yet while the narrative fascinates, it remains solipsistic to the finish.

Connie Imboden's photographs reveal bizarre aspects of the human body that are almost beyond imagination, yet they're solidly grounded in reality. Try to unlock the secret of her technique without reading the wall texts.

Painter Tina Newberry is the least mystical of the five; she depicts herself dressed as people she imagines that she'd like to be.

Charlotte Schulz's charcoal drawings come closest to representing dreams as we remember them the morning after, as fragments that often seem unrelated. And Lindsay Pichaske's emaciated ceramic figures embody childhood fears and fantasies with graphic intensity.


Art: Wyeth, Differently

"Unique Force: The Art of Carolyn Wyeth" continues at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through March 15. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 general and $5 for seniors, students, and visitors 6 to 12. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.

"Lucid Dreaming" continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through April 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is $6.50 general, $6 for seniors, and $4 for students and visitors 6 through 18. Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edward

sozanski.

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