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People Top 5
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- February 09, 1981
- Vol. 15
- No. 5
Possessive of Privacy and a Master of Disguises, Painter Jamie Wyeth Meets the World Incognito
I really envy you," Jamie Wyeth once told his lifelong friend Jimmy Lynch. "You can be you, and nobody notices what you do. I always have to be me and everybody notices." It was no exaggeration; Jamie Wyeth was born conspicuous. Not only is he the grandson of the noted illustrator N.C. Wyeth and the son of Andrew Wyeth, America's most famous living painter, Jamie himself grew up prodigiously blessed. He was handsome, humorous, intelligent, exciting—and by 17 was painting mature portraits well beyond his father's accomplishments at the same age. At 20 he had his first New York show.
Married in 1968 to a beautiful Du Pont heiress, he became increasingly linked with celebrities. He painted a posthumous portrait of Jack Kennedy and formed close associations with Bobby and Ted. Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol posed for him and became his friends. It all was too dizzily glamorous to be true, and indeed it was far from the whole truth.
In fact, Jamie has rather cultivated the beautiful-person image as a smoke screen to protect his privacy. "This Jamie Wyeth that's been created is out there in front of me," he explains, "and people can play with that—while I'm back working feverishly on my painting." One recent wintry morning in Chadds Ford, Pa. found him descending the slope behind the barn on his farm, whooping "Hi, Jane! Hi, Jane!" in falsetto. Soon out of the underbrush trotted his beloved pig, Baby Jane. Bending down, Jamie playfully grabbed the beaming pig's snout. "Been out shopping, Jane?" Oinking in answer, she lay down like a luxuriating puppy as he scrubbed her bristly side with his fingernails. "Oh," crooned Jamie in pig-like ecstasy. "Oh, I can't stand it."
With a child's capacity for amazement, Jamie marveled at the animal. He noted for the thousandth time the slab of muscle "strong enough to lift a car," and the eyes—"Kennedy eyes with white lashes, darting, not missing a trick." Baby Jane, who has learned to pose, has taken her place in Jamie's often disquieting artistic bestiary beside a cruel-eyed seagull, a glowering herd of cows, a lordly ram, a quintessentially evil shark. "When I'm painting an animal like Baby Jane," he explains, "I'm still under the delusion that I'm doing a definitive portrait, recording something nobody's really looked at before."
Wyeth spends at least two months on a major oil, working seven days a week, struggling to transcend the subject. While working on a painting of Baby Jane a few years ago, he even brought her into his living room. "With a creature there's no voice, so the eyes become the voice," he says. "When you get eye-to-eye contact, a real connection, it's limitless—and incredibly thrilling." And he adds, laughing, "It's wonderful to see an animal like that sitting in front of the fireplace."
Both professionally and personally, through inheritance and influence, Jamie is a product of his remarkable family. He was born in 1946, younger brother to Nicholas, who is now an art dealer. By the time he finished sixth grade, Jamie insisted on quitting school to spend his mornings with a tutor and his afternoons drawing. In rural Chadds Ford, and in the remote summer seacoast hamlet of Cushing, Maine, the child grew up as a loner under the potent example of his father. Jamie's only art instruction came from his rigorously disciplining aunt, Carolyn Wyeth, and later from Andrew. He learned anatomy by dissecting cadavers in a medical school morgue.
Jamie was raised in the undiluted world of Wyeth imagination, so vivid it sometimes seems just a wink from reality. His mother read aloud over and over from The Once and Future King and The Wind in the Willows, and Jamie spent hours drawing knights in armor and battle scenes. Playing out medieval melodramas with his father's model castle manned by lead warriors, he absorbed the family fascination with miniature lands brought to life.
In Chadds Ford he found two local playmates, Jimmy Lynch and Jeffrey Theodore, and with them Jamie graduated to N.C. Wyeth's collection of costumes, dressing up as pirates, knights and Robin Hood's archers. They built forts among the hillside rocks and staged elaborate exploits with authentic bows, swords and muskets. Jamie was already the painter as actor, donning another skin and, almost more important, hiding behind a mask. To this day Halloween is a major event im Jamie's year, a chance to conceal himself totally in some fantastic mummer's masquerade. "It's the anonymity that's exciting," he explains. "You can really stare at people, which is wonderful."
This past Halloween he painted his face and hair dead white, blanked out one eye, and on the cheek fixed a ghastly glass eye. His mother and father came for dinner, Andrew wearing all black and a gorilla head. Small trick-or-treaters stood trembling in their Tinker Bell and Superman costumes when the door was thrown open by the two grotesques. "Don't worry," said Andrew reassuringly, "I'll take off my mask." Snatching off the gorilla head, he bared a hideously white Dracula face. The children fled.
To the Wyeth painters, the picturesque facade of an object, animate or inanimate, is often a mask hiding the innate brutality of life—the threat lurking in Carolyn's blacks, the malevolence in Andrew's whites. The menace is explicit in Jamie's self-portrait. He depicts himself as a shabby, black-suited figure with raw-boned wrists, and on the shoulder, in place of ahead, is a jack-o'-lantern wickedly grinning. "I love to carve that grin," says Jamie. "It's not really a grin but a sneer, which to me is terrifying. And when a jack-o'-lantern rots, the face deflates and wizens and the reality comes out. Fantastic."
The world of Jamie's imagination has never been a pretty place—nor has his personal life been storybook-sublime. He first met the woman of his choice, Phyllis, when she was a secretary to one of President Kennedy's special assistants. But his real interest flowered later, at a horse race in Pennsylvania, even though in the interim she had been tragically crippled in an automobile accident. With his back to the race, Jamie studied Phyllis in the stands through binoculars. "I thought she was fascinating," he remembers.
Today, using steel crutches and braces, Phyllis can walk only with complicated effort. But she is a dynamo, managing the farm while Jamie paints and holding top positions in Washington on the Women's Campaign Fund and the National Committee for the Arts for the Handicapped. Painting her, Jamie considers the pain and physical impairment as a mask to be penetrated, and he shows only the beauty and frail iron of her person. "She is so incredibly determined," Jamie says. "And there's something elusive. I'm constantly discovering new qualities, and that's what I love about her. Nothing is more uninteresting than completely knowing somebody, being totally at ease. I've never been totally at ease with Phyllis in my life."
Unlike his father, Jamie's sense of life's subsurface danger is usually explicit in his work. As his aunt Carolyn puts it, comparing father and son, "Andy's more of a spirit. He really could be called abstract in his way. Jamie, he's bread tack, solid down to the floor, not any of that spirit stuff." So when Jamie paints a raven it assumes human size, its claws and beak like scimitars. "I was alone for two months when I was doing that painting," he says, "and I got this whole thing of 'Is it alive in the house with me, in the dark?' Totally freaked me out." He goes on to explain, "Animals are not cute. They are disturbing. Pigs do eat their young. Actually I hate pigs. I just happen to have some who are friends of mine."
In Jamie's mind, the distinction between animals and human subjects is hazy. "With Nureyev," he says, "I am never quite sure whether he is animal or human. Nor is he." Jamie identified deeply with Andy Warhol, the secretly busy workman behind the hoopla, the guru of freakdom, the amazed child exclaiming, "Oh, oh, look!" Together they nearly bought out a store selling stuffed household pets, and now Jamie plants rigid dogs and cats about the house—a poodle behind the shower curtain in the guest bathroom to startle unwary visitors. But even—or perhaps particularly—with Warhol, the mask was breached. "You'll notice," Jamie says, "that I did not do the most flattering portrait of him."
The orbit of Jamie's work and life is bounded to the north by the remote Maine island of Monhegan—"an agonizing place," he says—where he spends months at a time alone. (The terrain is too steep and rough for Phyllis.) The solitary house, previously owned by the painter Rockwell Kent, is perched on a rocky point where the spume of storm-driven breakers sometimes carries across the roof. Jamie paints the power of the sea with his back to it—showing the rusty shards of a wrecked ship standing in the rock-strewn grass like twisted tombstones. But the main attraction of Monhegan is a special kind of isolation. "Some people haven't been off the island for 14 years," says Jamie admiringly. "They work for nobody but themselves, and they like solitude and leave each other alone. You can stand on top of the island and see the perimeters of your world."
Despite his celebrity, serious consideration as an important American artist has eluded Jamie. Critics have frequently savaged him. "Naturally it hurts," he admits. "I feel, here it comes again—Andrew Wyeth, illustrative. They hate him and they hate me—real hate. Thank God they have almost no power." Though his large oils sell for $75,000 to $100,000, Jamie is also a little wistful about his standing with the general public. "All that Wyeth baggage makes it awfully hard for people to look at my work clearly and deeply."
Some painters in Jamie's situation might hesitate to be identified with a pop artist like Andy Warhol. But when Warhol did Jamie's portrait—"That's just 'click,' " explains Wyeth—they even had a combined show. "Why not?" exclaims Jamie. "To hell with getting tight and cautious." In fact, there has always been a wild streak in Jamie which has helped him handle the problem of his name and his upbringing as a gifted child. "I had all the opportunities to become a precious s.o.b.," he says. Recklessness became his own form of rebellion. When his paintings began to sell and he could afford a succession of fast cars, Jamie claims he once averaged 160 mph to New York City in a Cobra, with Lynch looking for cops out the rear window.
Now Jamie is 34 and seems at a turning point. The beautiful looks have thickened slightly. He seems touched by an unadmitted pain. "I'm rather dull these days," he says ruefully. "All I do is paint." Houghton Mifflin recently published a comprehensive book of his works, and a major Jamie Wyeth retrospective was recently presented at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Inevitably, this is a time of appraisal, and Jamie is extremely self-critical. At the opening of the exhibition, says Jamie, "I felt like a real jackass. Being a painter is the only profession where you have to stand there with all your shortcomings on the wall." He considers himself to be just emerging from his student phase, just starting to have enough technical mastery so that "I can begin to get down the essentials of what I feel about an object." Otherwise there is no plan. "All I can do is keep working feverishly," he says. "In my life and my work, if I tie myself down with great theories about end results, that's death."
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