Monday, October 23, 2006

Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth and Basquiat

The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, by virtue of its gorgeous countryside location, is worlds apart from the typical urban setting where we expect to find a fine arts museum, and exists in an almost make-believe part of America that has been made famous by the Wyeth family of artists for the last three generations.
Factory Work at Brandywine River Museum
Currently on exhibition through November 19, 2006 is Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth and Basquiat, an eye-opening exhibition that should cement firmly the artistic footprint of the youngest of the two active Wyeth artists: Jamie Wyeth.

Jamie Wyeth (born 1946) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (born 1960 and died 1988) were both young, successful artists with substantial reputations of their own, when Warhol invited them (Wyeth in the 70s and Basquiat in the 80s) to join him in New York and paint with Warhol’s at the Factory, Warhol’s famous New York studio.

Jamie Wyeth is the son of realist painter and American art icon Andrew Wyeth, and the grandson of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (and all three of the Wyeth’s share other salons in the museum). But while Andrew Wyeth and his father are well-known names in the iconography of American art, Jamie has somewhat been unfairly dismissed by the postmodernists and the usual town criers always screaming about the "death of painting," and Jamie Wyeth, above it all, is a painter in the most powerful and solid of all painting traditions.

The current exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum showcases and documents the results of Wyeth’s long and fruitful association with Warhol and also Warhol’s subsequent and similar association with Basquiat.

The Wyeth-Warhol relationship was a close one. The two shopped for antiques and taxidermy specimens together, attended art exhibition and gallery openings, and exchanged ideas and traded influences. Warhol also visited Wyeth's farm in Chadds Ford, several times and in fact documented one of these visits in his published diaries.

Furthermore, and perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, Warhol and Wyeth painted each other's portraits, as later did Basquiat and Warhol. It is in these portraits that we discover a close, even intimate (in a friendship way) relationship between these artists.

When I was visiting the museum, I was lucky to run into the fair Victoria Wyeth, grandaughter of Andrew and niece to Jamie. Through her, as she walked through the museum and talked about her talented family, some intimate insights into her uncle's relationship and influence from and to Andy Warhol was revealed.

30 years ago, a journalist referred to the 1976 exhibition of the Wyeth and Warhol portraits at the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York City as "The Patriarch of Pop Paints the Prince of Realism." Famed art critic Hilton Kramer referred to these same portraits as "an all male version of Beauty and the Beast."

Andy Warhol by Jamie WyethAnd it is one of these portraits of Warhol by Wyeth ("Portrait of Andy Warhol," 1976, and presumably Kramer’s "beast") that really stands out as a unique insight into an artist whose face is perhaps second only to Frida Kahlo’s in the recognition factor among the artworld’s portraiture consciousness.

Wyeth has said about this portrait that Warhol’s "whole thing of absorbing everything, of recording – turning yourself into a sort of tape recorder – that appealed to me... Our work was diametrically opposite. But I loved the idea that he was a recorder. And I styled myself after it... And then I selfishly wanted to record him and paint every pimple that he had on his face. And he let me."

While I was at the museum, it was this portrait of Warhol that attracted the most attention, even from a visiting self-proclaimed Warholite, who told me that she had come to the exhibition just to see it (the painting is owned by the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville).

It captures the illusion of Warhol as only a master portrait artist can, somewhat dazed and fragile, looking much as if Warhol had aimed his famed 16mm camera onto himself. This is Wyeth at his most spectacular, in full control of unbelievable genetic technical skills that were evident at a tender age (he had his first New York gallery show at the age of 20).

Portrait of Shorty by Jamie WyethThese early skills are seen at the exhibition in his "Portrait of Shorty" done in 1963 when Wyeth was 17, and a portrait of President Kennedy done four years later that apparently was applauded by his widowed wife but disliked by the Kennedy clan for it showed JFK as a worried leader biting his fingernails, as Kennedy did when under stress. The portrait former president John F. Kennedy was exhibited at the Coe Kerr Gallery in 1974 and in the catalogue for that exhibition, Ted Stebbins (now Director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), wrote that "James Wyeth is a genuine master of the portrait . . . at twenty eight he has reached artistic maturity."

Jamie Wyeth by Andy WarholEighteen years his senior, Andy Warhol’s portraits of Wyeth are part of Warhol’s signature pieces: one is a projected line drawing done mechanically from Warhol’s Polaroid camera and the second a paint and silkscreen ink on canvas painting.

They depict Wyeth as a dreamy-eyed, handsome male prototype, a depiction that Warhol would revisit years later with Basquiat. In the drawings, Wyeth's lips are visited often by Warhol's pencil, delineating every line and crevice. "Jamie is just as cute in New York as he is in Chadds Ford," said Warhol in 1976, "and what I hope to reveal in the portrait is Jamie’s cuteness."

If Jamie Wyeth’s artwork was "diametrically opposite" to that of Warhol, it exists on another art history universe from that of art school icon Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat by WarholNew Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat was the son of New York Rican and Haitian parents, and his aggressive graffiti slogans had entertained the New York art world in the late 70’s while pissing off the most other New Yorkers who were sick and tired of the thousands of graffiti "artists" (such as me actually - my "canvasses" were the subway cars of the LL train from Brooklyn and the 7 train in Queens, both of which I took daily to go to High School) who roamed the streets and subways of the seven boroughs. Like Wyeth, he experienced early gallery success and had his first one-man show in Italy in 1981, also at the age of 20.

Basquiat was a determined and ambitious teenager who was a product of the 80’s and who sought out Warhol (according to the museum's press release), "not so much to learn about painting, but to learn how to become a celebrity."

According to art historian Robert Rosenblum, Basquiat was a "crazy kid from Brooklyn who... began his meteoric career by raucously embracing a counter-cultural life, living in public parks, selling painted T-shirts on the street, spraying graffiti on city walls, succumbing to cocaine and heroin, and using a garbage-can lid as his painter's palette."

Warhol and Basquiat, like Warhol and Wyeth a decade earlier, painted each other's portraits and collaborated on a series of paintings that were exhibited in 1985.

Basquiat tried Warhol's silk-screen techniques, and Warhol created an "oxidation" (copper metal powder, Liquitex acrylics, and urine) portrait of Basquiat. In this process, Warhol mix copper pigment with water and gesso and apply it to canvas. He would then pee onto this wet paint, and the urine would react with the copper to make it change colors. Once dried, Warhol would silkscreen the image onto the oxidized canvas.

Still a developing artist (his painting career only spanned seven years), Basquiat died of a drug overdose a year after Warhol's unexpected death in 1987. According to Paige Powell, Warhol’s assistant who dated Basquiat, "Warhol provided fatherly advice" and Basquiat learned "how to be a professional artist, how to be a business person, how to schmooze the collectors and hold the line with the dealers."

In Basquiat’s "Sketch of Andy Warhol" (1983-84), he captures a shocking view of Warhol, exposing him – in a completely different visual representation, but identical artistic insight – much like Wyeth had done in 1976. Robert Rosenblum notes in the exhibition’s catalog essay that "Warhol must also have been attracted, in a masochistic way, to the shocking candor of both Wyeth’s and Basquiat’s portraits of him."

In addition to the artwork, the exhibition is rich in peripheral materials (photographs, magazines, videos, and even Basquiat’s famed garbage-can lid palette) supporting the relationship between Warhol and the younger artists.

While both Warhol and Basquiat met unfortunate and early deaths, Jamie Wyeth continues to create works saluting his relationship with Warhol. Wyeth's The Wind (1999) is a modern interpretation of a post-Pre-Raphaelite painting owned by Warhol. Factory Lunch (2004) depicts Warhol at the Factory, and Fred Hughes (2005) captures Warhol with his ever-present tape recorder and his business manager.

The exhibition was curated by Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, who is an art historian, paintings conservator and Director of the Preservation Studies Doctoral Program at the University of Delaware. It runs through Nov. 19 and then it will travel to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, from January 16 to April 8, 2007, and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, from May 6 to August 26, 2007. Unfortunately it is currently not scheduled for any Greater DC area museum, where I think it would be a resounding success and open some curious minds to react on the association of these three creative artists. In fact, I think that this exhibition, with its important documentation of two significant artistic crossroads, should be picked up by museums and venues at all of our major art markets. It would not only be a good thing for our art students, but also for our public, and even for our penny-pinching museum administrators looking for an important exhibition that is also of interest to the general public and to American art historians.

Located on U.S. Route 1 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the Brandywine River Museum is open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Christmas Day. Admission is $8 for adults; $5 for seniors ages 65 and over, students with I.D., and children; and free for children under six and Brandywine Conservancy members. For more information, call 610-388-2700 or visit the museum's website at