Renowned for its relentless pursuit of the avant-garde, the Whitney Museum startled everyone this summer by mounting an exhibition of landscapes by Andrew Wyeth. The show ran simultaneously with a retrospective of the career of Charles Ray, a 45-year-old Los Angeles– based conceptual artist whose work is a mixed bag of sculpture, video and photography. It was a bizarre pairing, like putting the Boston Pops on a bill with Nine Inch Nails. At the opening, the visitors personified the clash of styles—nose rings on one floor, sensible shoes on the other; it was as if both sides of the NEA brouhaha had been brought together on the same turf. I was curious: How would those who came to see the somber landscapes of an American icon react to Ray’s anatomically correct mannequins? And would the arty types give Wyeth the time of day? I decided to return, armed with a tape recorder, to find out.
In the meantime, the critics weighed in. Only Calvin Tompkins of the New Yorker took on both artists, labeling Ray “very bright” while declaring Wyeth’s art “stone dead.” Still in sensationalist mode of the Tina Brown era, the magazine couldn’t resist running a photo of Ray’s full-scale sculpture of nude men engaged in a homosexual group grope—or so it appears. Entitled Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley ..., the work’s eight figures are actually models of Ray himself—an “orgy for one,” as Tompkins put it. Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, lauded Ray’s “straight-faced humor,” while Roberta Smith, also in the Times, said “most of [Wyeth’s] works could have been by almost any well-trained artist.” I wasn’t surprised: Wyeth has always been bashed by the critics, and Ray is definitely the new kid on the block.
I returned to the Whitney on a Thursday evening, when entrance is free, to find both floors packed. Before starting my survey, I took a spin around for a second look. Wyeth is best known for tempera paintings that often tell a story, so this exhibition’s emphasis on landscapes revealed another, more introspective side. Executed in tempera and watercolor, some canvases have his signature fine detailing, while others are loosely painted, almost abstract. Like most of Wyeth’s work, the majority of these paintings are set around his usual haunts in Pennsylvania and Maine.
Where Wyeth has followed a single, immediately recognizable path, Ray explores many seemingly unrelated facets of his artistic personality. He frequently uses his own image, coming across as a somewhat dweeby Everyman, the kind of guy who’s always on the outside looking in—best expressed by a piece in which he has inserted not a ship but a small replica of himself into a bottle. At other times, Ray toys with our preconceptions, either literally—what appears to be a minimalist black cube-shaped sculpture, for instance, is really a container filled to the brim with ink—or figuratively, as in his larger-than-life mannequin-like sculptures of women.
For my first victim, I picked a woman who looked to me like Mrs. Average America. Naturally, she turned out to be a curator—but of 19th- and early-20th-century art. This put her squarely with Wyeth, whom she described as “beautiful, complicated, and emotive.” Ray, she said, has “the humor of a second grader” and is, to her mind, “pathetic and empty.” Her husband, an engineer, agreed. “This guy Ray,” he said, “is a charlatan who’s riding a trend.”
Next was Tim, an opera singer, who had also come to see the Wyeths. “I expected to be thrilled, but the depth I wanted wasn’t there,” he told me. “Charles Ray, on the other hand, was much more interesting. I especially liked his giant woman. It brings up all kinds of issues.”
“This one makes me feel as if I’m in bed, just finished making mad, passionate love, and we’re getting the breeze in our faces,” Lola, a real estate broker, rhapsodized in front of Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea. “It’s just overwhelming. The man is so talented.” As for the Ray exhibit? “I don’t think I have time. I worked all day.”
Zena, a nine-year-old visiting the Whitney with her artist parents, discussed Ray’s work with aplomb. “Some of it was disgusting,” she said, “but some of it was pretty good. I liked the tabletop where the things on it move around. What I like about Wyeth,” she continued with enthusiasm, “is that sometimes when you see one of his paintings, it isn’t what you think. There’s one that looks like a shipwreck, but it’s really a clump of mussels.”
And me? As an artist and critic, I’m predictable, I suppose, in finding Wyeth’s melancholia heavy-handed and his renderings much too brown and conventional—“The kind of art,” as my friend Matt says, “our parents wish we did.” As for Ray, I’m attracted by his quirky eclecticism and the way he seems to be amusing himself at our expense. My favorite piece in the show is his sculpture of a nuclear family: nude, vulnerable father, mother, prepubescent son and baby daughter face us, holding hands, in actual scale—except that the children are as tall as the parents. Appropriate, I think, for a culture in which parents tell kids to do something and then ask, “Okay?”
However, I have often wondered whether having an intimacy with the nuts and bolts of art doesn’t attract us to some things at the expense of inuring us to the magic of others—raising the possibility that critics may not, in fact, always be the best critics. If I had an agenda that evening, it was to see both artists through fresher eyes.
After talking to lawyers, dental students, academics, retired security guards, artists of both stripes and other visitors, I concluded that positioning Wyeth and Ray together at the Whitney was a stroke of brilliance. It gave Wyeth a chance to be fairly evaluated and exposed Ray to a new audience that found, in many cases, that “difficult” art is not so difficult after all. I found that Ray was much more accessible than I’d thought and, while I remain unconverted, I could not but be impressed by the number of people who were deeply, visibly moved by Wyeth’s bleak and lonely vision.
Many people had no problem engaging with the work of both artists and, weird as it may seem, after a while I began to see similarities between the two. Both are precise workmen who deal in verisimilitude and illusion, and while Wyeth takes his inspiration from the landscape and Ray gets his in great part from the styling of consumer culture, each has a look that is profoundly American. Both, too, are preoccupied with death—Wyeth in his wintry disposition, his dead leaves and birds, and Ray in such pieces as his monochromatic gray reconstruction of a fatal car wreck. They each probe the middle depths of the human condition—not shallow, but not very deep, either—and it is in their isolated, existential outlooks that Ray and the 80-year-old Wyeth have the most in common. While Wyeth seems to identify with his environment, it provides him no solace—just as Ray, the man in the bottle, is on the outside looking in. Two views, from two generations, of man adrift in the world.