To mark the passing of Andrew Wyeth yesterday, I’d like to focus on just one aspect of his paintings: his instinct for removing elements from his compositions.
When he started planning “Groundhog Day,” above, there was a German Shepherd and a figure in the foreground, instead of a table setting.
Wyeth recalled, “I kept working on the dog and then I started doing the window. Then the dog disappeared.”
He got interested in the table and the wallpaper. “Then the dog came back,” he said. He worked restlessly on the image, and then decided to remove the dog for good, keeping the memory of the dog in “the ragged, chopped, sharp sliver part of the log,” and the knife on the table, which for him represented the dog’s fangs.
Wyeth believed that elements that he removed from a picture still remained as a phantom presence.
Howard Pyle, his father’s teacher, once said, “No one will ever shoot you for what you leave out of a picture.”
In the painting “Brown Swiss,” (detail, above) Wyeth deleted the windows from the left side of the Kuerner’s farmhouse, as evidenced by the photo of the actual building. He also erased or downplayed the stone wall and the road below the house.
Other artists in the past have recognized the power of eliminating elements. When Rembrandt began to develop his etching “Ecce Homo: Christ Presented to the People,” in 1655 (left), he crowded the scene with figures. Later he realized that the image would have more power if he burnished out most of the crowd. The final state of the etching (right) takes on more drama with less baggage.
Andrew Wyeth has gotten up from the table and left behind an empty chair. But his impish spirit will forever haunt the space and the silence.
There's a good sum-up of Wyeth's career at Charley Parker's blog Lines and Colors.
Michael Kimmelman's obituary in the New York Times, link.