Andrew Wyeth and the artist’s fragile reputation

Foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LTTW] Andrew Wyeth [1917-2009] is considered as a 20th century American Realist painter. He is well known among art critics and is popular through his painting entitled “Christina’s World” which became American icon.

Around the 70s to 80s with the rise of abstract painting and pop art, his reputation took a downturn because many art critics considered his painting style as obsolete.

A series of questions surfaced from us; what determines an artist and/or artwork as considered outdated? The techniques? Styles? Symbols? Forms? Issues behind it? Relevancies?

What we know now is that we must have clear parameters and measurements in judging an artist or an artwork, and we need to be able to see things with more than one point of view to understand it. If we acknowledge an artwork as outdated, it’s probably because we don’t have enough understanding about the continuum of art’s evolution.

For example, from the perspective of art’s evolution, there would be no Abstract Expressionism if there were no Dada-Surrealism; and there would be no Dada-Surrealism if there were no Realism. How did it happen? What makes them different and “alike” at the same time?

In Realism – Individualism, truth, and rebellion are the core issues of its thought. In Dada-Surrealism – these three core issue values were developed further. That’s why Dada-Surrealism was focused on the understanding of individual unconsciousness and irrationality as one of the truths, and also as an act of rebellion. Deeper understanding of these three values encouraged Abstract Expressionism to dig even deeper towards liberation of self-expression, which consist of experimentation and radicalism.

These –isms are bonded by the same issues. Yet, its forms are different from one to the other because of context differentiations. Different forms mean different style, technique, symbol, etc. With this in mind, now we could see the evolution of art as a unity – as a whole. There were no single –ism that could stand alone. This evolution also showed us the cyclical phase, not just to make the evolution relevant from time to time, but also it’s been inspiring to the following generations.

Well, regardless of what happened with Wyeth and his art critics, we have our own gratitude towards Andrew Wyeth because of his conviction and originality.

Here’s an appealing article about the ups and downs of Andrew Wyeth. Enjoy!


Andrew Wyeth and the artist’s fragile reputation

Henry Adams, Case Western Reserve University

I vividly recall my first encounter with Andrew Wyeth’s art when I was 14 years old, in the dingy galleries of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.

While giants like Picasso painted a world of artistic contrivance, Wyeth seemed to directly confront real life with an immediacy that I hadn’t encountered before. Yes, his drawings, watercolors and paintings seemed to capture the ramshackle character of New England with perfect accuracy. But they were also imbued with a powerful range of emotions: loneliness, the burdens of the past, the fragility of physical things, the struggle against a harsh climate and barren soil.

After this first encounter, I became a true believer in Wyeth’s work. It’s an opinion I still hold, though I’m aware that many others don’t share it.

On July 12, Wyeth would have turned 100. Over the course of his life and into his death, his reputation has weathered a whiplash of ups and downs and polarized opinion. In 1977, when the art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked to name the most overrated and underrated American artists, he nominated Andrew Wyeth for both categories.

How can we explain these dramatic shifts? And what do they say about how critics and artistic movements influence an artist’s legacy?

A star is born

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Andrew Wyeth achieved acclaim seldom, if ever, given to an American artist. On three occasions, major American museums acquired paintings he had made, with each purchase setting a new record for a living artist. In 1963, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Eight years later, Life magazine anointed him “America’s preeminent painter.”

The great connoisseur of Italian art, Bernard Berenson, wrote admirably about Wyeth’s work in his diary. The poet Robert Frost was an enthusiastic fan. The statesmen Winston Churchill, when he visited Boston, made arrangements to have Wyeth watercolors hang in his hotel room at the Ritz.

Some of his most passionate supporters were closely associated with the creation of the Museum of Modern Art: Lincoln Kirstein (the founder of the New York City Ballet), Elaine de Kooning (the art critic, painter and wife of the great abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning) and, most notably, Alfred Barr, the museum’s legendary founding director.

Barr, in fact, tracked Wyeth’s artistic progress with the obsessiveness of a stalker, just missing an opportunity to acquire a painting in 1941. He made up for his mistake in 1949, when he acquired Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.”

Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting ‘Christina’s World’ propelled him to fame. The Museum of Modern Art, NY


The painting quickly became one of the most popular works in the museum. Thomas Hoving, who later became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he would sometimes visit the museum to study this one painting alone. “Christina’s World” was one of the first widely distributed color posters, and it became a popular addition to college dorm rooms.

Within a decade the museum had earned, from reproduction rights, over 100 times what it had paid for the painting. Wyeth had created an iconic image, a painting so unforgettable that it became implanted in the minds of millions of Americans.

From illustrator to artist

The achievement was particularly notable because Wyeth rose to prominence just when realistic painting was going out of fashion.

N.C. Wyeth created dramatic illustrations for the 1911 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island.’ Wikimedia Commons


Abstract painting was elbowing everything else aside, and painters who had won national awards and acclaim in the 1930s were now finding that they needed to support themselves as illustrators, a profession that was increasingly derided as commercial.

In fact, Wyeth had close ties with the world of illustration: His father, N.C. Wyeth, had been one of America’s most successful illustrators, the source of action-packed imagery that stirred the imaginations of American boys in books such as “The Black Arrow” and “Treasure Island.” As a teenager, under his father’s auspices, Wyeth even illustrated a few boys’ books of his own.

But as Wyeth matured as an artist, he started making paintings in a style very much at odds with that of most commercial illustrators. Colorful scenes of dramatic action were replaced with a world that was subdued in color, drained of dramatic activity and enigmatic in meaning. While his subject matter was generally rural, it was a vision that was very much aligned with the existential anxieties of the nuclear age.

He was obsessed with minor details, of what you can learn from objects that are easily overlooked. Absence – what’s not in the frame – also played a big role in his work.

Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Groundhog Day’ (1959).
© Andrew Wyeth

For example, Wyeth’s painting “Groundhog Day” shows a sunny dining room with no one in it. It’s actually a displaced portrait of his neighbor Karl Kuerner, who fought for the Germans in World War I. Wyeth once told me Kuerner was the most brutal man he knew.

It takes a moment to notice that in this room – even with its cheerful yellow wallpaper – something’s not quite right. Karl’s place setting doesn’t contain a fork or spoon. There’s only a sharp knife. By taking out the thing we would normally expect in a portrait – a human figure – Wyeth makes us pay attention to things we wouldn’t usually notice, such as a place setting.

In significant ways, we get a richer (and scarier) sense of Karl Kuerner’s character than if Wyeth had physically depicted him in the frame. (Many good filmmakers, including those who have carefully studied Wyeth’s paintings, like M. Knight Shyamalan and Terrence Malick, use a similar approach.)

The march of abstract expressionism

But by the 1980s, Wyeth’s work was being savaged by critics. He was thought of as an anti-modernist and a reactionary, a painter who had turned his back on the expressive techniques developed by figures like Matisse, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. To the critics, Wyeth was old-fashioned, someone constrained by outdated, 19th-century ways of seeing the world.

How did he become inflicted with what art historian Wanda Corn has called “the Wyeth curse”?

Clearly, he was a victim of some larger cultural and political shifts. It’s not unlike what happened in Stalinist Russia, when revolutionary heroes were purged and were quite literally painted out of history paintings. At some point Andrew Wyeth no longer had a place in the official history of modern art. He had to be painted out.

During this period, the battle lines of the modernist movement were hardening. Many notable art critics, led by Clement Greenberg, believed that modern artists had engaged in a sort of lockstep march toward modes of expression that rejected an identifiable subject matter. These new paintings were increasingly flat and abstract, concerned chiefly with the arrangement of unrecognizable shapes and forms.

It left no room for a painting of a girl sprawled in a field, with a rustic house looming in the background – however dreamlike the scene might appear.

‘Vir Heroicus Sublimus,’ a painting by abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, is displayed in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. YoungDoo M. Carey/flickr, CC BY-NC


The logic of this “modernist march” was never very strong, since the works of some key modernist figures such as Jackson Pollock have great pictorial depth and don’t look flat. And the outcome of this progression was surely not very interesting – a painting that would be entirely flat and would represent nothing.

Nonetheless, the critics had sharpened their knives. “Moving your eye” across Wyeth’s paintings, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl wrote, was “like sledding on dirt.” Critic Dave Hickey sneered that Wyeth’s palette was made up of “mud and baby poop,” while the Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists called him a “popular realist” with “little conceptual originality.”

Getting personal

There were other forces at play.

I suspect that there was resentment about Wyeth’s success at a fairly early date. The Museum of Modern Art was largely formed around its collection of paintings by Pablo Picasso. It must have irked the staff that a painting by a young American upstart quickly became the most popular painting in the museum.

A major turning point, however, clearly occurred in 1976. On the surface, it was one of Wyeth’s most triumphant years: He was awarded a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first time this honor had been bestowed upon a living artist.

Henry Geldzahler, the museum’s curator of modern art, was originally slated to curate the exhibition. But he abruptly pulled out, with the director of the museum, Thomas Hoving, taking his place. In fact, there’s a backstory to why Geldzahler reneged. He had asked Wyeth to gift him a major painting, “River Valley.” The request went against basic standards of curatorial ethics, and Wyeth declined. In retaliation Geldzahler pulled out of the project and, according to Hoving, badmouthed Wyeth to his friends.

Whatever the exact cause, it was precisely around this time the New York art world – a surprisingly small place – decided that Andrew Wyeth was a pariah. It didn’t help that Wyeth sold most of his work through a network of dealers located outside New York. Notably, when the Museum of Modern Art celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1979, Andrew Wyeth wasn’t invited to the party, even though he had created the most famous American painting in the museum.

To this day, the museum exhibits a strange ambivalence towards Wyeth’s masterwork, “Christina’s World.” They refuse to lend it to major exhibitions – such as the centennial exhibitions of Wyeth’s work now appearing around the country – on the grounds that it’s too valuable to part with. But for years it was separated from the rest of the museum’s collection, and hung in places that demeaned it – by the escalator, in front of the restaurant and next to the entrance of a bathroom.

Wyeth today

A decade ago, a career-minded art historian would have avoided Wyeth. But in recent years, a number of gifted art historians have returned to Wyeth to reevaluate his legacy: Adam Weinberg, Timothy Standring, David Cateforis, Ann Klausen Knutsen, Alex Nemerov and Randall Griffey, among others.

The reasons for the uptick in interest are surely varied. But a central factor seems to be that Wyeth’s work is thoroughly in tune with what is being produced by adventurous young artists today. They’ve largely rejected abstraction as a vehicle, finding it unsuitable for the topics they want to address: body, gender, racial discrimination, politics, cruelty, mortality – the very issues which Wyeth addressed in his work.

While much contemporary art is in new media, such as video, rather than painting, the underlying message of Wyeth’s art remains very relevant. Art historians continue to argue about how to pigeonhole Wyeth within a terminology of visual styles. Was he a realist, a magic realist or a neo-realist?

My own view is that these labels aren’t useful. I believe he fits into a larger tradition of modernist creativity that goes beyond the medium of painting, one that’s also found in novels and movies – a tradition of attending to the overlooked. His influence – like that of his contemporary, Edward Hopper – has been most important and profound not in the realm of painting, but in poetry, literature and filmmaking.

The ConversationHe had no place in a world of art devoted merely to shapes and forms, and to nothing deeper. For this, his reputation suffered. Fortunately, he has again emerged as an original and challenging figure to a new generation of artists, critics and historians.

Henry Adams, Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the brain perceives rhythm

Study finds the brain is biased toward rhythms based on simple integer ratios.

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

When it comes to perceiving music, the human brain is much more tuned in to certain types of rhythms than others, according to a new study from MIT.

A team of neuroscientists has found that people are biased toward hearing and producing rhythms composed of simple integer ratios — for example, a series of four beats separated by equal time intervals (forming a 1:1:1 ratio).

This holds true for musicians and nonmusicians living in the United States, as well as members of a Bolivian tribe who have little exposure to Western music. However, the researchers found that the Bolivians tended to prefer different ratios than Westerners, and that these ratios corresponded to simple integer ratios found in their music but not in Western music.

“Both of these cultures seem to prioritize rhythms that are formed by simple integer ratios. It’s just that they don’t prioritize all of them,” says Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and the senior author of the study, which appears in the Jan. 5 issue of Current Biology.

The paper’s lead author is Nori Jacoby, a former MIT postdoc who is now a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University.

Mental representations of rhythm

For this study, the MIT team devised a new way to reveal biases in the brain’s interpretation of sensory input. These biases, called “priors,” are thought to be based on our past experience of the world and to help resolve sensory stimuli that could be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, in a noisy room, priors on speech help you to extract a conversation of interest by biasing perception toward familiar speech sounds, words, and linguistic forms.

“You often rely on your prior knowledge of the states of the world that are more or less likely, to help relieve some of that ambiguity,” McDermott says. “When you get some piece of data and you have to make your best guess as to what’s actually out there in the world, you use the prior — the prior probability of different things in the world — to constrain your guess.”

To try to reveal priors for musical rhythm, the researchers first asked American college students to listen to a randomly generated series of four beats and then tap back the rhythm that they heard. The researchers recorded the taps and then played the tapped sequence back to the student, who tapped it out again. With each iteration, the new rhythm changed slightly, just as words morph as they are spoken from person to person in a game of “telephone.” Eventually, the tapped sequences became dominated by the listener’s internal biases. By running the procedure many times, Jacoby and McDermott were able to measure these biases for simple rhythms.

“It’s a way to probe the mental representation of what people unconsciously expect,” Jacoby says. “We wanted to find a way to ‘read their minds,’ but without requiring people to introspect or verbalize anything.”

After five iterations of the task, the rhythms that people produced were all approximated by ratios of simple integers — but not all such ratios were present. The rhythms corresponded to those most often heard in Western music, such as 1:1:2 and 2:3:3. However, the subjects did not produce ratios uncommon in Western music, such as 2:2:3, 3:2:2, and 2:3:2.

“The rhythms that have high probability in people’s heads seem to coincide with these simple integer rhythms that we know to be common in Western music,” McDermott says.

The researchers found the same results in musicians and nonmusicians, suggesting that the priors are formed by listening to music rather than making it.

Cultural comparisons

Next, the researchers performed the same study with members of the Tsimane tribe, who live in a remote part of Bolivia and have little exposure to Western music. In a study published earlier this year, McDermott and his colleagues found differences between Tsimane and Western preferences for chords. While Westerners dislike dissonant chords, such as the combination of C and F#, the Tsimane rated them just as likeable as “consonant” chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustic frequencies of the two notes.

When musical rhythm was tested, the researchers found that, like Westerners, the Tsimane tended to produce rhythms consisting of simple integer ratios, but the ratios they generated were different than those preferred by Western subjects.

The rhythms favored by the Tsimane appear to be consistent with those that have been documented in the few records that exist of Tsimane music, McDermott says, a finding that offers evidence that priors are based on musical exposure.

“Using an iterated learning task, Western listeners could be compared to the Tsimane, as such giving insight into the process of cultural transmission and a possibly innate predisposition for small-integer-ratio rhythms,” says Henkjan Honing, a professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam, who was not part of the research team.

In future work, the researchers hope to use this technique to study other groups of people.

“What we plan on doing over the next year or two is to look at this in a number of different cultures and see how closely these priors mirror what we know about various cultures’ music,” Jacoby says.

The research was funded by a Hebrew University ELSC Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Center for Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University, and a McDonnell Scholar Award.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

Independence Day

“It’s A Mess!” by Bintang Perkasa | 59.4cm x 42cm | 3 layers | Mix Media on paper | 2017

[Jakarta, LttW] Over a month ago, on July 4, United States celebrated its Independence Day. Just a few days ago, India and Pakistan celebrated theirs, and today is Indonesia’s turn to do the same. Celebration, and Independence are the two keywords that we need to look into, especially when the world has been struggling with so many disturbing issues, like terrorism, extremism, global warming, corruption, worsening education, social media phenomena, war, refugee, food shortage, etc. How should we celebrate our independence if we are yet to resolve these matters?

To celebrate is to be proud of what we have tangibly (like natural resources and people), and intangibly, such as values (integrity, work ethos, mutual respect, and solidarity), tradition, unity and so on. To celebrate also means to be grateful for what we have genuinely achieved, not bragging about the self-indulging praises that are full of exaggerations. Celebrating is also about contemplating and admitting not only what we have not achieved, but also what we have done wrongly.

How about independence itself? How should we perceive this word? Independence is about being independent in two main areas, self reliant in supporting ourselves, and having the freedom and/or sovereignty to decide our destiny as a nation. Being self-reliant and sovereign do not mean that we can live independently from the others because eventually we will be in need of the help from others. With this in mind, independence then also means interdependent. So celebration is not a mere partying, is more about getting mature in the making.

So, Happy Independence Day to the nations that have matured over the years, and will continue to mature in the future.

Will global warming change Native American religious practices?

Rosalyn R. LaPier, Harvard University

The Colorado River, one of the longest rivers in the United States, is gradually shrinking. This is partly a result of overuse by municipalities and seasonal drought. The other reason is global warming.

The decline in the river reservoir will have serious implications for large U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, that depend on the Colorado River as their water source. In addition, this will also have an impact on the Native American tribes who view the Colorado River as sacred to their religions.

As Ka-Voka Jackson, a member of the Hualapai tribe and a graduate student working to address climate change on the Colorado River and restoring native plant species along its banks, stated,

“The Colorado River is so sacred not just to my tribe, but to so many others.”

As a scholar of Native American religions and the environment, I understand how indigenous people’s religions and sacred places are closely tied to their landscape. For the past 100 years, indigenous peoples have been forced to adapt to changes in their environments and modify their religious rituals in the United States. The U.S. government made certain Native American religious practices illegal in the 19th and early 20th century. Although these policies have since been rescinded, they led to changes in many indigenous practices.

Global warming, however, is different. The question is whether indigenous people will be able to adapt their beliefs all over again due to the impact of global warming on the natural world.

Adapting to change

The Blackfeet tribe in Montana brought changes in their relationship with the natural world as a result of the policies of the U.S. government from the 1880s to the 1930s.

For example, the Blackfeet purposefully moved religious ceremonies from one time on their liturgical calendar to completely different times to avoid the U.S. government penalizing native people for dancing or participating in religious ceremonies.

The Blackfeet moved their annual O’kan, or sundance festival, from late summer (usually held at the end of August) to the Fourth of July celebration. They avoided U.S. government punishment by masking their ceremonies within state-sanctioned public events.

Policies related to the mining of natural resources and damming of rivers on indigenous lands have also led to changes in Native Americans’ religious practices.

Historian David R. M. Beck interviewed elders and researched how the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin adapted to the loss of their sacred fish, the sturgeon, after a paper mill built a dam across the Wolf River.

Lake sturgeon on Bad River in Wisconsin. USFWSmidwest, CC BY


The sturgeon disappeared after the dam was built in 1892, because they could no longer swim upstream to spawn. For over 100 years, the Menominee tribal members continued to pray and conduct their annual “returning of the sturgeon” ceremony in the spring – even though there were no more sturgeon in the river. The Menominee ultimately won the right to return the sturgeon to the Wolf River in 1992 and the tribe revitalized the full ceremony and celebration of their sacred fish.

In all these situations, Native American tribes learned to adapt to the challenges placed before them, modify their religious practice and embrace a different relationship with the natural world.

Global warming and religion

When it comes to global climate change, it affects everyone, not just specific groups in specific places. But for many indigenous peoples, natural resources are closely linked to religious beliefs and practices.

Historically, indigenous peoples used the natural seasonal cycles of weather, plants and animals as part of their liturgical or religious calendar. The Blackfeet held their annual “beaver bundle ceremony” in the early spring as ice melted off rivers and beavers returned to the open waters. In Blackfeet mythology, a beaver served as a deity who taught humans how to cultivate tobacco, which the tribe used for important religious ceremonies and as a peace offering to their enemies.

What would the movement of beavers mean? Bryn Davies, CC BY-NC-ND


There are signs, though, that beavers are now moving north due to global warming. Biologists are currently studying both beavers and the birch and alder shrubs that beavers eat, as both move north into new regions. Scientists worry that as a keystone species, the movement of beavers will change the northern ecosystems as they cut off waterways and build beaver dams. And shrubs will change the local waterways that they grow by. This will affect local animal species.

What will happen when there are no more beaver in Blackfeet territory? Will their religious traditions adapt similar to the Menominee when they faced the loss of their sacred sturgeon?

Religion and resiliency

From the arctic tundra to the American desert southwest, and places worldwide, indigenous peoples will be facing the impact of global climate change.

Regarding the shrinking of the Colorado River, researchers Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck have concluded that, “Failing to act on climate change means accepting the very high risk that the Colorado River basin will continue to dry up into the future.”

If this river faces a drier future, it will likely affect the Mojave, a people indigenous to the Colorado River basin, who believe the river was created by their ancient deity Mastamho as part of their sacred landscape.

As the G-20 convenes in Germany this week to discuss global issues including climate change, indigenous scholars, such as myself, are wondering what the future holds for indigenous peoples, their environments and their religions.

The ConversationIndigenous communities can be resilient and adapt their internal religious beliefs to outside challenges, as Native American tribes from the turn of the 20th century have proven. Climate change presents yet another challenge.

Rosalyn R. LaPier, Research Associate of Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies and Native American Religion, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Human Ego, a Friend or Foe?

We are raising this issue because it may affect, influence, direct or even determine our future, particularly when involving individuals who we consider as the global “game changers”.

Our world is populated by 7 billions people, but when it comes to shaping the future, only a few who really matters. History tells us that global game changers are minorities consisting of prophets, philosopher, kings, presidents, scientists, artists, religious figures and so on. Jesus changed the course of humanity; Plato, Newton, and Einstein also among those who did, but so did Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and ISIS. So, human ego does matter; how should we deal with it?