I feel a strong sense of pride every time the Denver Art Museum creates a new exhibit. The quality, the big names, the number of works and the passion and knowledge with which they assemble these shows is amazing. I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the museum’s latest big exhibit, “Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio” just before it opened November 8. With more than 100 works done in pen and ink, graphite, charcoal, watercolor and more, it is very impressive. What’s more, Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew and a prominent painter himself was at the preview to show our group of journalists around, telling personal stories along the way.
One writer in the group commented to me that she was surprised the museum was able to attract this level of art and artist to little old Denver. I was shocked and kind of offended on behalf of my city and this museum. Why WOULDN’T Denver attract this level of work, not to mention other shows in the recent past including Cartier, Van Gogh and this summer’s In Bloom impressionism exhibit? We’re an elegant, active, very intelligent, well-read, well-bred, in-the-know population that not only appreciates such things but demands it! The fact that Wyeth has been working with the Denver Art Museum for four years to create this one-of-a-kind exhibit (you won’t see it anywhere else in the United States) is testament to how well-regarded our city, our museum, its curators and its director, Christoph Heinrich are in the art world. And we are the lucky beneficiaries. Off my soapbox and onto the exhibit.
As the exhibit’s curator Timothy Standring explained, the exhibit is set up like a conversation between father and son who, between them, individually and overlapping, have generated 10 decades of artwork. Travelling through multiple gallery rooms, you see father and son’s paintings side-by-side with similar and also drastically different subjectmatters. You see how they inspired each other, differed from each other and explored different techniques and a wide variety of mediums. Rooms are themed including “Animals” in which a favorite, “Kleberg” by Jamie Wyeth, shows a white dog with a ring around his eye. What a treat to have the artist himself explain how the dog came to have that ring (it wasn’t naturally there!). He said that there were always animals running around his and his father’s studios including rather large animals. This dog kept coming in and hanging around so one day, in a playful mood, Wyeth painted a quick circle around the dog’s eye, a la the “Our Gang” character.
Another room with nudes, displayed not only thought-provoking art but also intrigue. Jamie was the first to paint nudes, using his cousin as a model. His father later started to do his own nudes but approached it somewhat reluctantly. In one series, we see his trepidation painting first the building the woman was standing in the doorway of, then a little closer view, then a full-on nude on its own without the shelter of the building (both for subject and painter). Reluctant sketches evolved into more focus. Still, his son explained, he did the works with detachment. “Dad wasn’t trying to do a nude,” he explained to us. “It could have been a hill.” I found that interesting considering that both men also felt that animals were just other intellectual beings to them, not something lesser. Animals, nature, naked women – it was all subjectmatter for a painter’s eye and mind.
The exhibit gives a glimpse into the humor (sometimes rather twisted) that the entire family shared. Costumes were a common part of Wyeth life year-round, appearing as father/son garments in photographs and as props in paintings. Halloween was a well-honored holiday celebrated with passion to the Wyeths. The last room in the exhibit, titled “Wondrous Strange” shows this side of the two artists. Jamie Wyeth explained one of his paintings during the time when the Comet Hale-Bopp was a big deal. He says he was obsessed with it and wanted to try to paint it. Turns out, his father was also obsessed and was trying to paint it in his own way. The two hadn’t talked about it but, as was often the case, were having similar thoughts and inspirations.
Walking through the exhibit, you can practically hear the father and son talking to each other, providing commentary and compliment but that’s the point of the way the exhibit is set up. I didn’t get a chance to listen to it but we were told that in the audio program for families, the scenario is that a nosy neighbor of the Wyeths is talking to a group of children (the exhibit-goers), telling them all sorts of stories about the family. But then Jamie Wyeth (in his own voice and own words) dispels some of those crazy tales. Sounds fun. Whenever there is an audio tour at the Denver Art Museum, I always listen to both the version for adults as well as the kids’ version because they are so well done and really make the exhibit come to life.
The exhibit runs through February 7, 2016 and is ticketed with tickets available onsite, online and by phone at 720-913-0130.