Andrew Wyeth, RIP.

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Jan. 16 2009 3:47 PM

Andrew Wyeth, RIP

Remembering a great American artist and a great American con man.

I never got over my first glimpse of Otherworld, a painting from what turned out to be Andrew Wyeth's last major retrospective in 2005. As Ken Johnson observed in the New York Times, it was unlike any Wyeth painting you had ever seen. It depicted the interior of a private jet used by Wyeth and his wife/business manger, Betsy, to commute between their two homes in Pennsylvania and Maine. Although rendered with Wyeth's characteristic and breathtaking realism, the plushness of the plane's interior and the vastness of its portholelike windows were almost certainly a fanciful exaggeration. A fashionable-looking young woman was shown peering out one porthole at a Chadds Ford, Pa., tableau; two portholes over, we glimpsed the rocky coast of Maine. These were the twin milieus that had made Wyeth a beloved figure to middlebrow art lovers like me—the Kuerner Farm to the left, the Olson House to the right.

Wyeth, who painted Otherworld in 2002, reportedly wanted to title it Betsy's World in ironic reference to his most famous painting, but Betsy vetoed that. Even so, the artist's wink seemed unmistakable: "Look how rich I got pretending the industrial revolution never took place!"

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I'm a huge Wyeth fan and have been since I was a child. Two Wyeth reproductions hang in my home. I never paid much attention either to the art critics who mocked Wyeth as old-fashioned or to the art critics' critics who thought Wyeth was a one-man refutation of modernism. When Wyeth created a media sensation in the 1980s by exhibiting nudes of his purported mistress (he denied it), I paid respectful attention to the paintings and tried to ignore the hubbub. (Since when was it news that an artist had slept with his nude model?) When Wyeth mounted that last retrospective in 2005, I traveled to Philadelphia and couldn't stop staring at Otherworld.

In the Times, Johnson wrote, "at 88 Mr. Wyeth is not likely to change, but wouldn't it be interesting if he were to explore the vulgar modernity that his romantic isolationism ordinarily keeps at bay?" I think this misses the point. Otherworld didn't represent a potential new direction for Wyeth in old age. It represented good-humored self-mockery from an old man with nothing to prove about the aesthetic that had made him one of the 20th century's most prosperous artists. By systematically eliminating from his paintings any contrivances from the post-agrarian world, Wyeth had manipulated brilliantly the haute bourgeoisie's anxious aspirations to shabby gentility. "This is what our neighbors would look like," he made us think, "if only we had a weathered country house that had been in the family for five generations!" The Shakers had been working this racket for years. More recently, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, and the magazine Real Simple have gotten in on the con.

Ah, the simple life. If only we could afford it!

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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