Andrew Wyeth, John Olson’s Funeral, 1945.
Two decades before he was interred beneath a stark black granite tombstone in Cushing, Maine, the artist Andrew Wyeth imagined his own funeral. In about fifty drawings from the early 1990s known as the “Funeral Group,” he sketched family, friends, and neighbors gathered around a coffin containing his supine corpse. These people were not just his community but his muses, from his wife Betsy wearing a broad-brimmed hand leaning over his body to Helga Testorf at the head of the coffin. Her hair is in the same long braids as in the secretive intimate portraits Wyeth created in the 1970s and 80s that caused a scandal.
Other mourners are more roughly defined in loose strokes of pencil, like his neighbors Andy Bell holding the coffin lid upright and Jimmy Lynch who is turned away from the coffin in a pose reminiscent of the one in Wyeth’s Man and the Moon (1990) in which Lynch stands nude alongside a motorcycle. Some drawings zoom in on details such as the coffin handles and others take in the full scene set against a snowy hillside.
Andrew Wyeth, Dr. Syn, 1981.
Although the “Funeral Group” drawings suggest Wyeth was exploring an idea for a larger work, he never completed one of his atmospheric tempera paintings based on the sketches. Instead, the drawings were left behind in the home of his friends in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Only in 2018 were they rediscovered and connected to similar drawings in the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
Now, at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, through October 16, selections from the series are being shared with the public for the first time in Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death. The exhibition includes contextual art by Wyeth as well as pieces by other artists who have meditated on their mortality. A catalogue of the same name, co-published with Delmonico Books, further examines the drawings through recent research.
As Colby College recently acquired two islands off the coast of Maine where Andrew and Betsy Wyeth lived and worked, the exhibition adds to their engagement with his creative practice.
“The rediscovery of the ‘Funeral Group’ helps us understand how Wyeth’s thinking about death and its representation evolved over his long career, particularly through the genre of self-portraiture,” says Tanya Sheehan, curator of the exhibition and a professor of art at Colby College. “The series also shows us how the artist was imagining his legacy and his relationship to his community as he approached the end of his life.”
Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948) is one of the most recognizable works of twentieth-century American art, yet the artist remains a polarizing and enigmatic figure who adhered to a pastoral realism amidst the rise of abstraction. In the rural settings that pervades his work, death is often a haunting presence. Until his own death in 2009, health issues punctuated Wyeth’s life, including a 1951 surgery to treat a serious lung disease. A typically oblique self-portrait was made following the operation called Trodden Weed, showing only Wyeth’s legs, clad in his father’s boots, walking on the desiccated grass of winter. His self-portrait Dr. Syn (1981), meanwhile, portrays a seated skeleton dressed in a blue military coat while Breakup (1994) pictures the artist’s own hands desperately reaching through the broken ice.
Andrew Wyeth, Breakup, 1994.
Andrew Wyeth, Kuerner’s Hill 16 (Funeral Group), ca. 1991–94.
Andrew Wyeth, Kuerner’s Hill 1 (Funeral Group), ca. 1991–94.
In an essay from the catalogue, Karen Baumgartner, associate director of research and collections at the Chadds Ford Office of Andrew Wyeth, observed: “He also evoked mortality throughout his oeuvre without resorting to showing dead bodies or employing other obvious funereal symbolism.” For instance, Pentecost (1989) depicts diaphanous fishing nets stretched out at a dock to evoke the drowning of a young girl at sea.
One moment of loss loomed especially large. In 1945, Wyeth’s father, artist N.C. Wyeth, and his nephew, died when a train hit their car. In Winter 1946 (1946), he portrayed a boy running down a hill that just behind it hides these fatal tracks. He later said the painting was the first he made with “a real reason to do it.” That same landscape known as Kuerner’s Hill also appears in the “Funeral Group” as a persistent reminder that everything can change in an instant.
Andrew Wyeth, Helen Sipala 8 (Funeral Group), ca. 1991–94.
“As I was studying the ‘Funeral Group,’ I found myself continuously asking what it meant for Wyeth to picture his own death,” Sheehan shares. “He was not alone in making that gesture, and so I began comparing his work to that of his contemporaries and artists today, and was struck by the resonances. The entire project was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic, but certainly reflecting on one’s passing has become even more prevalent in the context of that global crisis.”
Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death situates Wyeth alongside other artists who have grappled with mortality, from Andy Warhol’s skull prints to David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Face in the Dirt) in which the artist, who would soon die from AIDS, is being consumed by rubble.
“It is uncommon to see exhibitions or writings on Andrew Wyeth discussing him alongside other artists, especially those working in the twenty first century,” Sheehan says. “I wanted to change that by showing how picturing one’s death is part of a larger conversation in American art that has been ongoing since the 1960s and is especially relevant to the hopes and fears of Americans today. Audiences may be surprised to see Wyeth talked about alongside a conceptual photographer like Duane Michals, a transnational woman artist like Janaina Tschäpe, or an artist whose work engages with Black Lives Matter like Mario Moore. But these are the kinds of conversations I think we need to be having about Wyeth’s art in 2022.”
Wyeth remains an artist many consider on the fringes of twentieth-century American art who was a contrarian to the shifts in modern visual expression. The new attention to the “Funeral Group” drawings, with their unfinished lines and unflinching gaze at an inevitable end, offers another view of his process and perspective. Wyeth said in a 1965 interview with Life magazine that he wanted to “paint without me existing,” and here he is, working through themes of grief and absence that have pervaded art for centuries and envisioning a moment of final absence from his work when all that will be left behind are the people he captured on canvas.
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Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.
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Andrew Wyeth, John Olson’s Funeral, 1945.