The Death of a Maine Painter

On view at the Colby College Museum of Art until October 16, “Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death” features a series of drawings by the famous Maine painter, in which he imagined and portrayed his own funeral

"Breakup," 1994, tempera on panel, 20" x 28". Courtesy of Jeb Jeutter, North Carolina. All images shown here © 2021 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS).
"John Olson's Funeral," 1945, watercolor on paper, 21½" x 29½". Courtesy of New Britain Museum of American Art.
"Dr. Syn," 1981, tempera on panel, 21½" x 19". Courtesy of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
"Helen Sipala 8" (Funeral Group), ca. 1991–94, pencil on paper. Courtesy of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
"Kuerner's Hill 1" (Funeral Group), ca. 1991–94, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection.

A series of drawings—mostly in pencil on sketchbook and watercolor papers and one largely composed in watercolor—are the foundation of Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death, a contemplative exhibitions on view at Colby College Museum of Art through October 16, 2022.

Wyeth (1917-2009) created these drawings when he was in his 70s, presumably as studies for a lost or never-realized painting; this is the first time they’ve been shown publicly.

Known as the Funeral Group for their depictions of a graveside, casket, and mourners, the drawings are loose and energetic, with the marks of a confident hand moving through the spaces of the paper, considering and reconsidering. Splashes of watery pigment add a sense of immediacy and show a lack of preciousness; the act of imagining and composing is primary, even urgent, and the artist’s love for refinement is saved for the likenesses of mourners. Helga Testort is here, along with the artist’s dear friends and neighbors Helen Sipala and Anna Kuerner and Wyeth’s wife, Betsy James Wyeth, wearing her signature wide-brimmed hat. Andrew Wyeth, in a rare self-portrait, lies in the open casket. The imagined funeral is his own.

Exhibition curator Tanya Sheehan makes the exciting opportunity to consider these drawings and several death-themed Wyeth paintings alongside works by well-known conceptual artists of Wyeth’s generation—Andy Warhol, George Tooker, and Duane Michals—as well as works by contemporary artists Mario Moore, Janaina Tschäpe, and David Wojnarowicz. Just as Wyeth imagines and composes his own funeral, each of these artists explores ideas about mortality through forms of self-portraiture and performance.

In Duane Michals’s 2019 video The End, the 87-year old artist stages the last minutes of his life as a conversation in a cafe, with Death personified. Their banter is audible throughout the galleries and becomes a soundtrack for viewing the Wyeth drawings. Mario Moore’s self-portrait Fall (2017) is rendered in silverpoint, an impermanent medium in the sense that it will tarnish over time. Moore presents himself

as an inverted head and shoulders lying on the ground and observed from above by someone whose feet are just visible at the base of the drawing. These feet could be menacing and/or they could be the viewer’s. In two photographs from Janaina Tschäpe’s series 100 Little Deaths, the artist inserts herself as a lifeless body in places she has once lived, loved, or in some way been intimately connected with.

“Although Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death was conceived before the coronavirus pandemic, it is my hope that the exhibition will speak to the feelings of loss that have touched us all since 2020,” says Sheehan. “COVID-19 has also prompted many of us to imagine, as Wyeth did, the fundamentally unknowable experience of dying.” Wyeth was likely grieving the deaths of his brother and sister when he made the Funeral Group drawings, and the Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, landscape depicted in the drawings is also the place where his father, N.C., and young nephew Newell had died years earlier in a tragic car accident. If imagination provides myriad ways to converse with grief and fear—as the exhibition suggests—then it might also be a foil for the great final mystery.

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