By Suzanne Volmer
Boston, MA – The acquisition of Jamie Wyeth’s “Portrait of John F. Kennedy,” announced by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at the press preview for its recently opened Jamie Wyeth Retrospective, is a true coup.
Their gain is a historically relevant portrait painted by the artist as a young man, and adds contemporary dimension to their Collection of American Presidential Portraits. Painters John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent are also represented in the museum’s permanent collection and are artists with whom Jamie Wyeth is regularly compared. The museum owns paintings by his father Andrew Wyeth and the permanent collection also includes the iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
Wyeth was present at the preview to speak informally about the process of his work and the Museum of Fine Arts retrospective. Heredity and environment certainly have influenced him. As he walked through the exhibition Jamie described his sense of wonder as a boy running into his grandfather N.C. Wyeth’s studio. He noted that the theatricality of the environment was in contrast to his father’s very austere pure white workspace. Books illustrated by his grandfather included “Treasure Island” and “Last of the Mohicans,” so certainly drama was attached to these childhood forays.
Most recently Jamie Wyeth has been exploring ideas relating to Maine’s Monhegan Island. He has made paintings about the place, which exude painterly finesse, freedom and richness of color. “Berg” is a recent night scene with a sleek recessed orange line slicing across a top edge in glowing counterpoint to the ice-flow he’s brought into immediate attention in the foreground. In this painting, Wyeth acknowledges the rigors of Maine’s environment and conveys its power.
His approach over the years has involved immersing himself in the visual language of his subject’s alternate worlds. He traveled for two years on the campaign trail with Bobby and Ted Kennedy sketching their gestures and family mannerisms as he prepared to paint his interpretation of the late President John F. Kennedy. He worked at Warhol’s Factory alongside the Pop artist in the 1970s, so they could create and exchange portraits of each other.
Looking at Andy’s portrait of Jamie in this retrospective next to some that Jamie made of Andy; Wyeth said that he was given matinee idol good looks whereas Warhol requested of Jamie that he lessen the amount of “pimple pink.”
Wyeth had access to Warhol’s inner circle, as a colleague and friend – a rarity recorded in two atypical tableaux vivant and these miniature 3D models are included in the exhibition as well. One conjures Andy in the Factory dining room as he reviewed daily film rushes with a few members of his entourage present.
The other shows the interior of the restaurant refuge la Côte Basque where Andy, Truman Capote and others [presumably Jamie included] relaxed in convivial cossetted comfort beyond the public eye. For some it will be a revelation that Andy at these remembered moments enjoyed being in rooms that were conspicuously absent of Pop.
Switching gears from the miniatures Wyeth remarks on the experience of painting the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev whom he describes as temperamental. He said that it wasn’t until after Nureyev died that he could paint him, as he’d wanted, wearing theatrical whiteface as he walked out onto the pavement after his nightly performance. “Can you imagine being on the street and seeing that…. the impression it would make. You’d remember that!” said Wyeth.
Nureyev portraits are the subject of several preparatory combined-media works in this show and Wyeth mentions that Nureyev’s life was transient as he went from stage to stage. The dancer lived in hotels, which Wyeth described as the life of wandering show-folk, and he wanted to express that side of Nureyev. The portrait that Jamie eventually painted (10 years later) gives a sense of Nureyev as a powerful roaming predatory creature.
Shown in the same exhibition gallery, as the dancer’s image is the contrasting furtive deer-in-the headlights finished portrait of Andy Warhol. Other galleries of this retrospective feature portraits involving subjects from Jamie Wyeth’s storied Brandywine country, or are inspired by Maine’s Coastal Islands with which he also has a long history. This retrospective is a tightly edited and complex assortment of things, in which a number of excellent portraits measure-up.
It’s been said that Bobby Kennedy didn’t like Jamie’s portrait of his brother because the expression seemed reminiscent of tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis; however, wife Jacqueline liked it.
Similarly, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine considered “Portrait of Helen Tausig” so unflattering when it was completed that it went into that institution’s basement for years until it was recently excavated and put on display.
Among the most recent Wyeth works in the exhibition, “The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine” depicts Jack o’ lanterns in mid-flight that have been hurled upward and plummet downward to hit jagged rocks before getting dragged out to sea. The crisp contrasting color in this painting is bright and freshly indicative of the moment.
There’s wit and weirdness about this picture. The flourish of narrative may refer back to dramatics Jamie remembers from his grandfather’s studio and artworks. In particular this painting has buoyancy and a sense of fantastic free fall in the form of a painterly tour de force that may possibly be a window into the direction of his future work.
Corresponding with the opening of his retrospective, there is also a Wyeth show of “Recent Paintings” on view through July 31 at Adelson Galleries, 520 Harrison Avenue, Boston.
(The Jamie Wyeth retrospective runs through December 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston. For more information, call (617) 267-9300. Jamie Wyeth: Recent Paintings can be seen through July 31 at Adelson Galleries, 520 Harrison Avenue, Boston. Call (617) 832-0633 for gallery times).