The Rejection of the Regionalists: Wyeth, Wood, and the New Americans

          In Andrew Wyeth’s winter landscapes, Pennsylvania seems to groom itself with a cold gray tongue. Down it sweeps, over wide brown plains and farms, over towns and small cities. It gentles the cows that graze in fenced-in fields, the light-eyed farmers who bring them out to pasture, and the crows that guard them both. It smoothes the wheat that covers its body like a winter fur. The state is cleaning, making ready for the spring, when the sunlight will reveal all its dirty and dusty corners without mercy.

          Sometimes the wind loses interest in the middle of a stroke. Other times, it licks energetically to the bottom of the state, where it comes up against an old stone mill on a broad lot. For fifty years, this mill was Wyeth’s home. Here the painter died on January 16 of this year, tucked in bed, as stray gusts rattled at the windowpanes.

          Wyeth painted this landscape and the people and things that populate it for nearly his entire life. It was a gentle scene, and a seductive one. His America was calm and austere, his Americans vital and strong. So why did critics so vigorously attack them both?

          At the peak of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s, Wyeth’s images of Pennsylvania and Maine, where he spent summers, made him both one the most popular artists in America and one of the most disparaged. Art world insiders derided his sentimentalism and “anti-modernism” even as thousands of patrons flocked to surveys of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. The artist’s work was paradoxically controversial given its aesthetic conservatism. Robert Storr, now the dean of Yale’s School of Art, named the painter “our greatest living ‘kitsch-meister.’” Dave Hickey called him pretentious and accused him of working in a palette of “mud and baby poop.” Intellectually, these critics were reacting to the artist’s uncritical populism. Wyeth catered to mainstream tastes, and he displayed none of the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the incoming postmodern artists. His art was humorless, retrograde, inferior—clearly meant for the masses.

          But the objections to Wyeth’s work were not just academic. Often they were visceral and emotional. This seems odd; after all, the artist was only painting sparse landscapes and meticulous portraits in a clear and expressive realist style. Yet however strange the debate over his art seems, it had been rehearsed (albeit at a lower intensity) a half-dozen times over the past fifty years. The same argument surfaced every time a “regionalist” artist achieved widespread success.

          To be called a regionalist is either to be slandered or to be praised, depending on whom you ask. Detractors take the genre’s name for what it is. They often argue that regionalists are close-minded and lack the creative vision of their more radical, cosmopolitan counterparts. Supporters claim that regionalists do the United States a service by providing it with images of itself. Either way, the regionalist label, which has been in use since the late 20s, generally applies to artists whose work depicts a rural part of the country in an accessible, place-conscious way. When written with a capital “r,” it refers more specifically to Midwestern artists working between the two world wars. As the vagueness of both terms suggests, “regionalism” is less a clearly defined category than a means of signifying that a certain sort of debate has taken place over an artist’s work. The conflict it refers to is, on its surface, nothing more than an art-world iteration of urban-rural tensions.

          But with Wyeth, it was more intense. He made the city critics howl. They were not just dismissive; they seemed to be uncomfortable. There was something about the paintings that made them anxious. The artist’s works possessed some hidden and powerful reactionary force—a force that was driving audiences crazy. Some commentators attributed their own unsettled feelings to the artist’s simple-minded sentimentalism. Others slammed him for producing representational art in an age of abstraction.

          Few critics talked about the people Wyeth painted—and here, they may have missed the source of their own unease. The artist’s most famous and most frequent models are not “native” New Englanders. They are not recent arrivals like Italians or Mexicans or Jews. They are not former slaves or Native Americans. They are Nordic and German immigrants and their descendents. Some of them were forced out of their native lands by demographic pressures; others fled a blasted Europe in the middle decades of the 20th century. They were hardly welcome here even by Wyeth’s time. In the United States, the World Wars had taken the form “not simply [of] a struggle against Germany, but also [of] a fight against things German,” as the historian Stephen Gross puts it. Decades later, many Americans still distrusted Teutonic and Teutonic-looking newcomers.

          Yet there they were, on canvas after canvas. Christina Olson, Siri Erickson, Helga Testorf, Karl and Anna Kuerner—a spread of pale, wide brows, golden hair, rosy cheeks, glittering light eyes. Their figures seem to fade into his bleak landscapes, into the wind, the brown earth, the clear gray sky. To the artist, these people were “truly wholesome” and “fresh, really American.” To city-dwellers, they were alien, and frightening—foreign, but better suited to the land than they were.

          Wyeth was confronting the beaux-monde with a hardier, more perfect race of American. The city folk just couldn’t look them in the face.

          Fifty years before the critic Peter Schjeldahl called Wyeth’s Helga pictures “as threatening to your sense of self as a quilted pot holder,” Grant Wood was painting the German woman’s distant cousins. The Iowan took up the brush at a young age, not long after his family moved from Anamosa to the suburbs of Cedar Rapids. Though he left it in 1901, at the age of 10, Wood would always claim that the tiny farming town formed him as an artist. Certainly his later paintings bear out this statement: from 1930 on, the artist almost exclusively depicted rural landscapes, small towns, farms—and, of course, the hardworking, upright people who populated all three.

          But Anamosa was the last thing in his mind during what he later termed his “bohemian” period. From about the time of his family’s move to the city to his 40th birthday, Wood began to gather strength as a painter. He also made what in retrospect seem like a series of half-hearted attempts to escape the physical and moral orbit of the rural Midwest. He moved to Chicago in 1913, and spent the next four years as a sometimes-student at the Art Institute. After his return to Cedar Rapids, he was able to save enough money from sporadic teaching and design jobs to embark on a series of trips to Paris. Inevitably, he returned from these excursions talking, acting, and dressing like a denizen of the Left Bank and painting like a minor Impressionist. Eventually, however, Wood settled back down in his Iowa town for good. He began more and more often to paint the people and places he had seen since childhood.

          Wood was just bohemian enough for the people of Cedar Rapids. The townsfolk didn’t quite approve of Braque, or Matisse, or that Picasso fellow—and certainly not those oddballs over in New York—but Wood seemed just about right for an artist, at least to them. He kept strange hours, couldn’t manage his own money, and was probably too creative for his own good—but wasn’t he harmless, really? He taught their middle-schoolers and designed the stained glass window for the Veteran’s Memorial building. His early paintings hung in hundreds of homes and businesses across the state. True, that moustache and goatee he wore after his first European trip were a little much, but he shaved them off pretty quick. All told, Wood was the kind of artist they could really like. He didn’t stir things up or challenge their values too much, but he brought a bit of color to the place. So as long as he continued to meet their expectations, his fellow citizens would support him with commissions and patronage. A little market sprang up in the area for original Grant Woods.

          The artist returned their favor in the 1930s with what would be called his Regionalist canvases. By the start of the decade, he had completely abandoned his earlier pseudo-modernism and dedicated himself to painting meticulous, gently caricatured visions of the Iowans and their landscape. These works were both stylistic and thematic breakthroughs. Not only had Wood engineered a new realism from American folk art and mural-painting traditions and Northern Renaissance portraiture; he was giving rural subject matter a substantial artistic treatment. His innovations were important enough to earn gallery space for his work in Chicago and in the East. Through his paintings, city-dwellers finally had a chance to meet their country neighbors.

          But what the urbanites saw may have been disconcerting. If they were expecting people who looked or lived like they did, they were wrong. Wood’s landscapes are cartoonish, rounded, sinuous. His buildings stand rigidly upright. But his Iowans fall somewhere between the two, somewhere oddly inhuman. Their noses and chins are rotund, their eyes dark and moist, their necks stiff, their lips tucked into little lines of rectitude. Their limbs are rounded, but their motions and gaits are jerky, angular, stylized. Although they should be of the town—most of them were the descendents of German and Nordic immigrants who had arrived in the area just decades earlier—visually, they bridge the town and the land. They are not fully of the built environment, although it is an environment of their own construction. Over time, they have grown into the American Midwest, until they are more than natives. They are natural features. Few people in the East felt so comfortable in their own cities.

          Unsurprisingly, Wood’s Regionalist works were criticized for the same retrograde qualities as Wyeth’s later ones. While some modernists praised the painter for American Gothic, which they saw as a critique of rural values, the rest of his work elicited their ire. Formalists ripped him apart for what The New Republic’s James Sweeney described as a lack of “sensibility to color,” a “feeble sense of modeling,” and “insensitively stylized forms”—in other words, for failing to meet the criteria of orthodox modernism. Those who judged him on his own terms as a vernacular realist were just as harsh. His Iowa was too curvaceous, too alluring, and too far removed from what critics assumed were the realities of the Depression. Lincoln Kirstein accused him of painting with a “simple-minded mannerism” that at times sent his figures into “fat toy territory.” Even Thomas Craven, a pro-Regionalist, accused him of a “frivolity” that damped his attempts at expression. Wood’s popular reception was enthusiastic, particularly in the Midwest, but the opinion of the urban art elite was consistently, aggresively negative.

          However, Wood’s real or imagined shortcomings as a creator didn’t warrant the vehement responses of his detractors. Boring, conservative, insufficiently innovative, or overly imaginative paintings might be expected to produce indifference or mild distaste, not outrage. There was something else about Wood’s work that was making critics downright antsy. Something lurking in the Iowa landscape. Over round hills and fields sewn with wheat, it comes—a relative the city folk can’t recognize, a countryman to whom they can’t relate. A new sort of American. Wholesome, strong, and completely comfortable in the land—far more comfortable than they were among the skyscrapers and subway cars.

          In Wyeth’s work, this figure finally drifted into view.

          The first time the painter saw the Prussian-born Helga Testorf walking down a snow-strewn Pennsylvania road, he was enchanted. Immediately he noticed “all her German qualities,” qualities Karl and Anna Kuerner also possessed: “her strong, determined stride, that Loden coat, the braided blond hair.” He asked her to pose; she agreed. She became his “most perfect model,” and his most frequent. From 1971 to 1985, Wyeth secretly painted and drew 246 images of Testorf. There was Helga in the forest, Helga at home, Helga walking, melting into the landscape as if she could become a part of it. And Helga naked—on a stool, in a sauna, on her knees or her back in bed. Betsy Wyeth later told reporters she was unaware that Testorf had modeled for her husband. Andrew Wyeth claimed their relationship had never been physical.

          The art world exploded at the news of the series upon its sale to a single collector in 1986. The paintings’ scandal threatened to completely erase the public memory of the rest of Wyeth’s work. TIME ran a story on the collection and suggested that the artist and his wife had craftily manipulated reports about the series to inflate the value of his other paintings. Insiders, at least, did not need to be convinced that the pictures were tawdry. The Metropolitan Museum of Art declined to show the paintings, even though it was offered access to the entire collection. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith called the eventual National Gallery exhibition “a theme show with all the sentimentality and sensationalism—and even the element of soft-core pornography—of an afternoon soap.” Most critics bore similar feelings, and expressed them just as strongly. The general art world opinion of Wyeth had fallen even further.

          But what did these viewers find particularly offensive about the Helga pictures? It couldn’t be the implied affair between the artist and his model, nor the scandal that surrounded its revelation—both are commonplace in art history. The paintings are just as technically competent as Wyeth’s other works. They are just as spooky, just as kitschy. What, then, was the matter?

          Helga herself was the source of the critics’ unease. She is the apex of Wyeth’s Teutonic fixation, its symbol and best representative. Her thick brow, flat face, blonde hair, blue eyes—that Loden coat, that straight and solid bearing! She is a pure Prussian, the product of good Germanic stock—and strangely military. This, Wyeth would tell us, is the face of America. A “wholesome” and “fresh” face. But it was already familiar to most viewers, and not so wholesome to some of them. How did the city-dwellers feel when they learned that the new American, their country neighbor, their superior, their potential replacement, was Aryan?

          Critics were uncomfortable with Grant Wood’s paintings, but they were far more troubled by Wyeth’s. They had reason to be. Both artists appealed with their paintings to Americans yearning for “a lost agrarian past,” as The Washington Post put it. They presented their audiences with a new sort of rural person—a hardy breed well-suited to the land.  In Wyeth, however, the “breed” takes on an overt racial character. The progressive American art scene may not have been ready to accept a painter who fetishized the same qualities that had preoccupied Nazi eugenicists. They were qualities that had haunted many of the art worlders, or their parents and families, in a time so different it could have been another life. They were qualities over which, in a sense, Americans once went to war.

          But strangely—perversely—Wyeth’s fame and popularity have grown over time. By now, Wood has been reduced to a single, indelible image: American Gothic, much parodied and much discussed. His fellow regionalist, however, is considered the greatest American artist of the twentieth century in some circles. His paintings are exhibited across the country. Even the notoriously Wyeth-averse Museum of Modern Art displays Christina’s World. And the news of his death has propelled another burst of interest in his paintings and legacy.

          This time, the critics have been more generous. Robert Storr has acknowledged Wyeth’s “great energy and conviction.” Others have claimed him as a closet innovator. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Kathleen Foster has called him “a different voice of modernism.” She curated a posthumous exhibition of the painter’s work that went up in late January. Other shows have opened in Tennessee and Maine. With more time to plan, other, larger retrospectives will debut—public demand for the artist is high. Once again, Americans will come face to face with Helgas and Siris and Olsons and Kuerners. Urbanites and city critics will have another chance to look them in the eyes.