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Painter Jamie Wyeth has long lived in the shadow of his famous father, Andrew Wyeth, and grandfather, N.C. Wyeth. His work has been criticized as unusual and as “mere illustrations.”
Wyeth says, “the wonderful thing about painting is that they can’t stop you from painting.”
After 60 years of painting, Jamie Wyeth is getting his due: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a comprehensive retrospective of his work.
Here & Now’s Robin Young met up with Wyeth at the museum, where he talks about his and his father’s paintings, and why he did a self-portrait depicting himself as a pumpkin-head.
On dealing with art critics
“The wonderful thing about painting, at least, is they can’t stop you from painting. I mean, if you’re in the theater, they’ll shut the show down. Thank god in painting it has virtually no effect. I have continued to paint; my father — who was savaged by the critics — continued to paint until practically the last week of his life. In a funny sense it’s almost impotent: why not keep working? It made me more determined to paint.”
“The real kiss of death — particularly with my father — is the extraordinary popularity of his work. I was at the Museum of Modern Art recently and the guard there told me the two most popular questions are ‘Where is the ladies room?’ and the second one is ‘Where is Christina’s World?’ In the art world, that’s the kiss of death. Their assumption is that really the American people really don’t know what they’re looking at. If something appeals to them, then it’s suspect.”
On his pumpkin self-portrait
“I had been elected to the National Academy of Design in New York, and one of the requirements was that you give a portrait, a self-portrait of yourself. Well, I didn’t want to do myself in a self-portrait, but I love pumpkins. It’s the sinisterness, the Halloween I’ve always loved. It’s a little bit edgy. So I did it and of course they were furious and rejected it.”
“If you really look at them, they’re rather haunting. It’s a sneer, not a grin. That’s what intrigued me — go beyond the sort of cuteness of a pumpkin and the sort of ‘oh, how funny.’ Really, what is going on? Is there a human head under that?”
On his father’s recent death
“He said, ‘Jamie, you have to draw me in death.’ And I did. I haven’t shown it, I probably will never show it. But it was fascinating to see somebody that I adored and worshiped and that hand that produced so many remarkable things just still. It’s sort of amazing. But the great thing about a painter is that he or she lives on — I mean, Andrew Wyeth is more in his paintings than he was walking around. So at least that softened things a bit.”