A golden rule: to leave an incomplete image of oneself . . .
—E. M. Cioran
WHEN DO YOU STOP MOURNING a casualty of art? Some never do. Recall Dostoevsky, driven to the verge of an epileptic attack by Holbein’s supine, open-eyed Christ, or the men who, so moved by the excavated Laocoön and His Sons, began to writhe in imitation of the marble serpents and their prey. Here we have Oscar Wilde on a suicide in Balzac: “One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh.”
A recently discovered group of drawings made by Andrew Wyeth, the painter, attends in its own way to the overlapping of life, death, and art. Long derided as a regressive paragon of self-reliance and retardataire realism, Wyeth in fact continually pursued a world outside of his body, a world beyond embodiment itself. The dreary hills and overworked neighbors; the billowing curtain and haunted, changeless interiors—the afterlives of these images as household kitsch (on coffee tables, calendars, posters) belie a precision that is clinging, paranoid, unreal. “I wish I could paint without me existing,” he said. His velleity finds its starkest expression in a body of work known as the Funeral Group drawings, ca. 1991–94, whose funeral is the artist’s own. Futile to assign a motive to these long-forgotten memento mori, which might be considered “finished” artworks but are likely abandoned studies for a full-size tempera. Andy, as his friends and family knew him, composed these drawings in private and preferred to keep them, if not strictly a secret, then lying in wait. (Unlike Tom and Huck, he will not crash the ceremony to be lavished with a thousand materteral kisses.) Given the patent untimeliness of the Wyeth corpus, it seems only fitting that its latest addition commingles the preliminary with the posthumous, bequeathing effects without causes.
His casket is surrounded by muses. Andy Bell, Anna Kuerner, Jimmy Lynch, Helga Testorf, Helen Sipala, Betsy Wyeth: the superstars of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Arrayed against a blank ground save for occasional fences, some outbuildings, the theory of a tree, the mourners bow their heads and close their eyes, appearing rather corpselike themselves, especially in individual detail studies, where each face takes on the serene hardness of a death mask; our draftsman seems to know that his subjects, his survivors, will be survived by their representations. Despite Wyeth’s near-unprecedented familiarity with his sitters, he is constantly alert to the mysterious merits of outsideness, not to mention the disorienting powers of verisimilitude, qualities underestimated by many practitioners of the revenant figurative style. Rather than unsettle the roles of painter and subject, Andy seems in these drawings to double down on his omniscience, locking himself inside the one-way mirror of art and swallowing the skeleton key, holding Emerson’s transparent eyeball up to his own lifeless “I.” My own eye wanders across the various sketches, from Helga’s braid to Betsy’s steady hand resting on the edge of her husband’s coffin, which contains a rare self-portrait, to a muddle of erasure marks. From the diagonals of telephone cables (an anomaly in Wyeth country) to the faint sloping line at the top that brings this funeral-cum–finissage into space: Kuerner’s Hill.
On October 19, 1945, a mail train collided with a car stopped inexplicably on the tracks outside Karl and Anna Kuerner’s farm, instantly killing Andrew’s father (N. C. Wyeth) and three-year-old nephew, and spurring Andrew Wyeth’s career into motion. A world without heroes, without God, a world that had begun to lose the plot: This would be his inheritance, elegy his assignment. Where N. C., a domineering father and thwarted fine artist, gained renown for his storybook illustrations of swashbucklers, cowboys, and Mohicans done in the rip-roaring Brandywine style, Andy would confine his existence and his easel to the purlieus of Chadds Ford and Cushing, Maine. Sly Homeric watercolors curdled into arcadias of mourning and melancholia; before the Funeral Group, one would be hard-pressed to name a Wyeth depicting more than one person. His Snow Hill of 1989, a kind of one-canvas retrospective, marks an exception: a strange, Ozian fantasy of the hereafter set on the peak of Kuerner’s Hill, where six of his Chadds Ford models—all but two deceased by the time of the painting’s completion—cavort around a maypole topped with a Christmas tree, a white ribbon unclaimed, reserved for the artist himself.
Andy seems in these drawings to double down on his omniscience, locking himself inside the one-way mirror of art and swallowing the skeleton key, holding Emerson’s transparent eyeball up to his own lifeless “I.”
That the axis mundi of Wyeth’s Chadds Ford should constitute such an oxymoron is telling. Like death, his images turn on the question of whether to go backward or forward—and whether the choice is ours to make. The question confounds attempts to recuperate the painter as a Trojan modernist, as does the distance between his secular worldview and his dream, admitted only by the paintings themselves, to access the grace available to the believing masters. Looking at the funeral drawings, especially in the portrait studies, one is unprepared for the certainty of the artist’s line, its rememberedness, and how it might reveal incompleteness to be the condition of immortality. Indeed, the only thing Andy liked more than secrets were revelations, of which the most regrettable, the so-called Helga Pictures—a group of 240 portraits, many of them nudes, of a German neighbor, covertly painted between 1970 and 1985 and eventually exhibited to scandal by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—dealt an almost unrecoverable blow to his reputation and marriage. In the funeral drawings, Helga stands at the head of the casket.
In the 2014 book Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, curator Patricia Junker draws a line from the Helga Pictures to Étant donnés, the diorama secretly assembled by Marcel Duchamp between 1946 and 1966 and installed in 1969, a year after the ostensibly retired artist’s death, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What might Wyeth have thought as he pressed his eye against the peephole to find Duchamp’s assiduous, discomposing vision: a lifelike sculpture of a dead-seeming woman, naked and splayed amid the bramble near a lake that might as well be his beloved Brandywine River, only thirty miles from the museum as the buzzard flies? Perhaps he had heard the ur-Conceptualist’s famous 1961 edict: “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.” Duchamp modeled the faceless body of Étant donnés on his mistress Maria Martins and his wife, Teeny (the subject of Christina’s World is likewise an amalgamation: of Wyeth’s middle-aged neighbor Anna Christina Olson and twenty-six-year-old Betsy). Writing in these pages, Helen Molesworth once declared Étant donnés a metaphor for love, specifically the “shattering that is similar to the alienation from the self we encounter when we fall into the space-time continuum of love and desire.” Wyeth’s tableaux morts place witnesses at a similar remove; the corpse, if it could talk, might say that death imitates art, or that they imitate each other, their shapes gleaned only through vicarious experience. Their vicariousness, when not triggering bouts of despair, gives us hope. And “the subject of the funeral pictures,” as the art historian Alexander Nemerov writes, “is us.”
What do Andrew Wyeth’s funeral drawings, wreathed in lateness, have to offer “us”? As of this writing, the United States approaches one million pandemic deaths. The deep-rooted failures that led to this unforgivable landmark—failures that disproportionately afflict Black, Native, and Latinx people, and that have deprived thousands of a funeral—have also laid bare a politics of what Judith Butler terms grievability. The claim to collective mourning is, as Butler notes, something feared as far back as Plato, who sought to banish poets from the republic lest the inconsolable viewers of tragedies redirect their outrage at those in power. Attuned to the transformative possibilities of shared grief, art historian Tanya Sheehan has invited acquaintances and strangers to gather around Wyeth’s coffin at Maine’s Colby College Museum of Art, where the exhibition “Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death” will be on view through October 16. The unveiling of the Funeral Group will be accompanied by the work of contemporary artists including Adrian Piper, George Tooker, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz, whose Untitled (Face in Dirt), ca. 1990, photographed after his terminal HIV diagnosis, is a final self-portrait of the artist, almost completely buried in a grave dug with his own hands. It is incredible to think of these two men staging, at more or less the same time, such different contemplations of mortality. Where Wojnarowicz imagines how grieving oneself might lead one to look after the lives of others, Wyeth foreshadows how a life might be erased, and recovered, through the very act of looking, through a body of art. Who will discover you, these drawings seem to ask, and will you be revealed?
Zack Hatfield is an associate editor of Artforum.