‘Abstract Flash’: Andrew Wyeth exhibit to open at Brandywine Museum of Art07/03/2023 12:52PM ● By Richard Gaw
Image courtesy of the Brandywine Museum of Art “Abstract Flash: Unseen Andrew Wyeth” will open at the Brandywine Museum of Art on July 29.
By Caroline Roosevelt, Contributing Writer
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with William L. Coleman, Ph.D., Wyeth Foundation Curator and Director of the Andrew & Betsy Wyeth Study Center, to pick his brain on the upcoming exhibition at the Brandywine Museum of Art, “Abstract Flash: Unseen Andrew Wyeth,” which will be on display from July 29 through Feb. 18, 2024.
Coleman relocated from the New York’s Hudson Valley last fall, where he worked at the Olana State Historic Site in Hudson and curated another single artist legacy collection – that of 19th-century landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church.
As the exhibition prepares to be open to the public later this month, the question that continues to be asked and answered with each Wyeth exhibition at the Brandywine Art Museum is: What is the range of stories you can tell through a single artist’s story? As Coleman understands it, “I do see in Wyeth the ability to tell many different stories about, in this case, abstraction.”
Caroline Roosevelt: Tell me a little about the underpinning of this new exhibition.
William Coleman: This will be the second exhibition of a new era. The first was Andrew Wyeth “Home Places” (ending July 30th). The estate plan of Besty James Wyeth commenced a new era and placed the Brandywine Art Museum in the drivers’ seat for the management of this 7,000-object private collection. We work with the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Half of the objects are stored in Maine, and the other half here in Chadds Ford.
CR: I think one of the interesting things about Wyeth is that he’s internationally/nationally acclaimed and yet he really never left Chadds Ford and Maine, and yet developed so much of the voice of Americana as it stands in art history in the 20th Century from those two places.
WC: “Abstract Flash: Unseen Andrew Wyeth” thinks about the layers and the lifetime of inspiration that he found in just two places: a two-mile radius around Chadds Ford, and a similar radius around Cushing, Maine. There’s wonderful landscape painting, fascinating paintings of buildings, everything from very minute realistic painting to abstract work and the latter is what we are focusing on in this upcoming exhibition.
There’s a school of thought that Andrew Wyeth is a conservative artist, a backwards looking artist, an artist born in the wrong century. This exhibition hopes to challenge that perceived wisdom. We are bringing out from storage some incredible works that show he was aware of what was happening in the big city, with abstract expressionism, with all of these challenging new ideas coming out of the city. Surprisingly, he wasn’t threatened by them. There’s a whole body of never-before-seen watercolors that show him using methods of abstract expressionism. We also have some work that shows how he related to abstract painters.
CR: What are some of the titles of his more abstract work?
WC: One of the interesting things about this show is all of the work is untitled. That’s significant in “Wyeth World." What that means is that Andrew Wyeth never judged them to be saleable objects. It was a private practice. It also says that Betsy James Wyeth, who was the key artistic advisor/director, never gave them a title. It’s a secret, private practice was made for personal pleasure.
CR: Would you say his process is meditative?
WC: He has a solitary method. He’s deeply inscribed in these two places and walking and driving through them, coming to know them deeply. There is a meditative quality to that. There’s always complexity to that, as he also works quickly and abstractly in watercolor. In addition to the abstract work on display with the upcoming exhibition, we will be getting back some of Wyeth’s tempera pieces.
CR: What are some of the challenging cliches this exhibition looks to overturn?
WC: With Andrew Wyeth, you have an artist who is resolutely rural. In the mid 20th century, New York City takes over the capital of modernism from France. And yet, there are these artists who choose to be in Vermont and Chadds Ford, cut off and then going into the city as needed to collect an award. The risk in that is that they are cast as provincial artists. What we are trying to articulate in “Abstract Flash” is that there is another modernism, a fascinating rural practice with Andrew Wyeth. He was completely aware of, and engaged with, the fascinating new ideas coming out of the city. This came out of a rare kind of conviction of making something all his own.
CR: I can’t help but think that this will be something that resounds with younger generations. With the digital nomads, you can receive just as much notoriety behind your computer out in the middle of nowhere, as you can in the city and you can make that choice, and it’s almost a privilege. I feel like that point would really resound with Millennials and gen-Zers.
WC: I hope so! We are trying to reach new generations and audiences with our upcoming shows.
CR: Can you tell me a little about the curation of this exhibition?
WC: It is a product of our structure, where our exhibitions are produced collaboratively. I am the first director of the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Research Center, but this idea was brought forward by one of our employees, Karen Baumgartner. She is a wonderful, knowledgeable employee who became full-time staff last summer. Prior to that, she had been a direct employee of the Wyeths’. She knows the collection really deeply and she found the objects in storage and nominated them for the checklist.
“Abstract Flash: Unseen Andrew Wyeth” will be on display July 29 – Feb. 18, 2024 at the Brandywine Museum of Art. To learn more, visit the Museum’s website at www.brandywine.org.