Art: Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret

The Helga collection, a hidden treasure trove

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But there is nothing like unanimity in the assessments of Wyeth's stature as a modern American artist. Theodore Stebbins, curator of paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, puts Wyeth "in a category all by himself. Being what he is brings up debate on what art is: realism vs. abstraction. He is a beautiful draftsman, a brilliant watercolorist, a very fine painter. In his field, Wyeth is an outstanding figure." Many critics in the Manhattan art scene, however, find him stubbornly irrelevant. "Wyeth's philosophy is Poor Richard's Almanack," sniffs Henry Geldzahler, former curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "His skies have no vapor trails, his people wear no wristwatches. He is the Williamsburg of American painting -- charming, especially when seen from a helicopter."

And, of course, the art world is buzzing with speculation about what is not on the canvas. Friends openly debate whether Wyeth is philandering or faithful. Why did he keep the collection hidden from his wife? And why did he wait so long to release it? Says Artist George Segal: "There's an anguish any artist has between wanting to keep private and wanting to show. It's internal warfare. Showing new paintings is like dropping your pants in public."

But now for a moment ignore the tattle, forget the blurbs and look at the pictures. The hubbub of controversy is stilled in the silence that these disquieting portraits demand. Imputations of Wyeth's motives are lost in the dark nexus where passion meets craft. Speculation on the course of his relationship with Helga turns to fascination with the development of graphic ideas and emotions in studies for final works. In the first sketch for Overflow, Helga is a thin, pretty, sleeping girl; the suggestive lines idealize her. And yet she breathes with youth and possibility. When the series is fleshed out, weight and age attach themselves to her, and by the time Wyeth commits the image to paint she looks calcified, statuesque, a squaw totem placed on its side. But no: there is a hint of life and movement. Helga's hip has curled out of its confining sheet, perhaps in response to the sound of the cascade outside her window that gives the work its title. Following the gestation from sketch to drybrush is like flipping through a family album of Atget X rays.

In Lovers, all the movement is in nature. Sunlight and a breeze rush in through the window; a leaf has just sailed past the sill and stops for a moment to have its picture taken. Helga is perched on a stool, her body erect, her fingers splayed under her haunches, her head averted toward her shadow on the wall, or toward an unseen lover. The work's title teases meaning out of enigma. Who are the lovers? Helga and the unseen figure? The model and her shadow? The artist and his model?

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