Farnsworth Art Museum
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A Conversation with Christopher Crossman About the Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine
Christopher Crosman at the Farnsworth Homestead
photo by Susan P. Morrissey
Introduction of Christopher Crosman, Director of the Farnsworth Museum
An art historian, curator, educator, and administrator with more than a quarter century's experience in American museums, Christopher Crosman has served since 1988 as director of the William A. Famsworth Library and Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
Educated at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, from which he received his B.A. in American history in 1968, and at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he pursued graduate studies in the history of art, Mr. Crosman began his career in the museum field in 1972, as an educator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. He remained at the Albright-Knox through 1985, serving as curator of education and for 10 years co-directing the Video Vasari Project, an extensive series of on-location interviews with artists represented in the Albright-Knox collection or featured in temporary exhibitions. Among the artists interviewed for the project were Robert Motherwell, Henry Moore, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal, Jim Dine, Sonia Delaunay, Robert Mangold, Ibram Lassaw, Herbert Ferber, Graham Sutherland, and Anthony Care.
In 1985, Mr. Crosman was named director of the Heckscher Museum, located on Long Island in Huntington, New York. Among the exhibitions Mr. Crosman organized for the Heckscher Museum were Painterly Panels: Arlene Slavin and Jonathan Santlofer (1986); James Brooks: A Quarter Century of Work (1988); and An Eye for Adornment: Selections from a Private Collection (1988).
Since coming to the Farnsworth in 1988, Mr. Crosman has tightened the museum's focus to concentrate on Maine-related art and artists. He has undertaken a major fund-raising campaign and renovation project to modernize the museum's existing building; overseen the acquisition of the Olson House in nearby Cushing (a site that inspired Andrew Wyeth's art for more than 30 years) and the former Pratt Memorial Methodist Church; commissioned a master plan for the Farnsworth; and worked with the Wyeth family to create the new Farnsworth Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine.
Mr. Crosman currently serves as chairman of the Maine Arts Commission. He has previously served as a member of the board of directors of the Maine Community Cultural Alliance (1990-92) and of the board of directors of the Rockland-Thomaston Chamber of Commerce ( 1992 -94).
Question: What is the purpose of the Farnsworth Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine? Is it primarily a popular attraction, created for the many people who enjoy the work of the Wyeths?
Christopher Crosman: Obviously, we hope and expect that the Center will attract many ofthe Wyeths' admirers to the Farnsworth. We want to serve that public. But we would not have created this Center--in fact, we could not have created it--without having a serious commitment to the Wyeths' art. Our goal is to make that art better known--because, paradoxically, it has a very high public profile and yet is little understood.
Q: Before we get to Wondrous Strange, perhaps you could explain how it's possible that the Wyeths' work is not well understood.
CC: A body of work can't really be known unless people have been allowed to look at it closely for an extended period. Strangely enough, they haven't had that chance with Andrew Wyeth's work.
His pictures have been widely collected, but by individuals more than by institutions. So we don't see five or six Andrew Wyeths hanging in The Museum of Modern Art, nor do we see them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney, I believe, owns only one painting by Andrew Wyeth, which I find startling. I recall a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post that lamented the lack of Wyeths on view in Washington, DC, even though the National Gallery of Art owns a number of works. That situation: I think, will change over time. But until now, his work has been virtually invisible in the major public collections.
Another problem has been the lack of serious scholarly examination of the Wyeths' work. That, too, has been a function to some extent of a lack of access to materials. The Brandywine River Museum, which remains the most important site for the Wyeths, has opened its archives to many scholars over the years. But although the Brandywine gladly accommodates scholars, as a physical space it simply was not built for them. The Center is being designed from the beginning as both an exhibition gallery and a study center, which will serve the scholarly community.
We hope that scholarship--which is the underpinning of all museums, all exhibitions: all education programs--will benefit from our study center. That part of the program is the real heart of the Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine, which would become static without it.
Right: Map relating Wyeth Center (top) to other buildings at the Farnsworth Museum campus
Q: You said the Farnsworth Art Museum is seriously committed to Andrew Wyeth's art. From a critical vieupoint, how important is that art?
CC: Andrew Wyeth's place in American art is already secure. It will become more secure as time passes.
He represents, if not an alternative direction to modernism, then a parallel course in American painting. Like Edward Hopper's, his work is clearly of our time--it's modern not only in the chronological sense but also in feeling and even form--and yet it maintains contact with roots in the 19th century. He takes the tradition of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins and makes it his own, imbuing it with a feeling that's characteristic of the middle and end of the 20th century: a sense of distance and edginess, of an uneasy, ambiguous relationship between the subject matter and the means with which the image is made.
Q: Is Andrew Wyeth a singular figure in contemporary American art, self-isolated from what has been seen as the modernist mainstream? Or has he maintained contact with fellow artists who have worked in other styles?
CC: The Farnsworth owns a very telling photograph of Andrew Wyeth and Louise Nevelson, which shows them conversing and smiling at each other. I understand they got along famously. From time to time, they even said nice things about each other's work!
Of course, that's surprising only if you insist on thinking in readymade critical categories, instead of getting into the work itself. People expect Andrew Wyeth to be a great admirer of Edward Hopper, as he is, because they're both realists. People are surprised when Wyeth also names Mark Rothko as one of his favorite artists. But it makes perfect sense. Both painters are fascinated by spareness and emptiness; both seem to fill their work with unstated evocations of life and death; both are painstaking craftsmen who updated traditional techniques, Rothko with his layer upon layer of light-catching glazes, Wyeth with his meticulous, light-reflecting tempera.
Q: Why is it valuable to see Andrew Wyeth's work side-by-side with that of his father and son, N.C. and Jamie? And why is it appropriate to specify Maine as a setting for the work of all three?
CC: For years now, scholars have been going beyond a concern with exclusively formal issues, to discuss art within a social and political context. With the Center, that context has been built in, right from the start.
We offer people a chance to study art-making as both a generational phenomenon and a regional phenomenon, within the still-broader context of American art. We have archival materials related to American artists other than the Wyeths, and within our walls you will find a fairly good survey of American art of the past two hundred years as it relates to this part of the country. Our collection, which is exclusively American, maintains a special focus on Maine's role in the history of American painting.
Q: What makes Maine of particular interest to the study of American art?
CC: Over the years, an extraordinary number of America's most important artists have had contact with Maine. So even though our identity as a regional museum might sound limiting, the Farnsworth's collection is in fact very rich.
We have good examples, and in some cases great examples, of the work of artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Fairfield Porter, Edward Hopper. It's a who's who of American art. A good many of the works come out of the realist tradition that has been the mainstream of American art. That's because so many of the artists who have chosen to work in Maine have felt most comfortable in that tradition. But because she was a native of Rockland and was very generous to us, we also have the second largest collection of works by Louise Nevelson of any museum in the country, after the Whitney. We also have a number of fine works by artists such as Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery.
That provides a framework, if you will, for the Wyeth collection. We believe the context we offer will be important not only to scholars but to the general public.
Q: How large are the holdings of the Center?
CC: Approximately 4,500 objects, as we estimate it now. Of those, some 75 are major tempera, oil, or drybrush paintings. (Drybrush is a technique more or less invented by Andrew Wyeth.) There are also several hundred watercolors. These now join the 36 works by all three Wyeths that were already in the collection.
The rest of the holdings consists of less finished works, most of them studies for paintings that Andrew Wyeth has made throughout his career, and documents. Obviously, the documentation is not a part of the art collection, but it is very illuminating about the family history and the works of art.
Of course, we don't intend to stop there. Andrew Wyeth is still painting, and Jamie Wyeth is at mid-career, so we hope to include more work by both of them as the Center grows and evolves. We also hope to acquire more examples of the work of N. C. Wyeth. We fully intend for the Center to be a collecting institution.
Q: How was the Center started?
CC: The genesis of the Center goes back, in effect, to a year or two before the museum opened, when the original trustees were forming a collection. In 1944, they bought four watercolors by Andrew Wyeth out of a show at Macbeth Gallery in New York. In 1951, the museum, in collaboration with the Currier Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire, mounted Andrew Wyeth's first solo museum retrospective. In 1968, the museum mounted Jamnie Wyeth's first solo museum show. In between there were several exhibitions featuring N.C. Wyeth. So there's been a strong, ongoing commitment to the work of the entire family.
When I came here in 1988, it dawned on me that the Wyeth family was highly important not only to the Farnsworth's history but to the state of Maine and the nation. We resolved to do something about preserving and exhibiting a collection of their work on a permanent basis.
Then, quite independent of that proposal, we happened to acquire the Olson House in Cushing, which was the site that inspired an entire series of works by Andrew Wyeth, including his best-known painting, Christina's World. Our acquisition of that house demonstrated to the Wyeth family that we were serious about our commitment to them. After that, we began to enter into discussions with them about the role the family had played in Maine, and the role that Maine had played in their art.
Q: How did the Farnsworth Art Museum acquire the Olson House? Was it offered as a donation?
CC: We did in fact receive it as a donation, from John Sculley, who was formerly the head of Apple Corporation. But we did not wait for it to come to us; we took the initiative.
The history is worth telling. After the Olsons died: the house sat vacant for a while, until it was bought by the film producer Joseph E. Levine. With the Wyeths' cooperation, he installed the house with a number of works by Andrew Wyeth that were inspired by the site. In fact: Levine bought several works from the family and formed an important collection. But the times were different then. People weren't yet ready to go down a little country road to visit a house museum. Levine finally closed the museum and sold the house, which eventually passed into the hands of John Sculley.
I don't think he was attracted to the house specifically because of its connection with Wyeth. As I understand it, he was a student of architecture and was intrigued by the structure of the house and the way it was sited on the hilltop. He hoped to live there; but after a while he concluded that the house could not be upgraded as a residence without its integrity being destroyed. At that point, even though the house was not on the market, we approached him and said, "If you ever want to make a donation to the Museum, this would be the most important single thing you could give us." And even though it wasn't particularly advantageous to him by way of a tax deduction, he saw how much the donation would mean and was generous enough to give us the house.
Q: And did that acquisition change your relationship with the Wyeth family?
CC: As I said, we were always on friendly terms with the Wyeths. But after we took the initiative and acquired the Olson House in 1991, they began to think of us as a primary choice for their collection. We had spoken off and on about the possibility of building a new wing or a gallery for them, and they always thought that was an interesting idea.
But then in 1995, when the old Pratt Memorial Methodist Church became available, right at the end of our street, we approached the Wyeths about the possibility of converting the structure into a gallery devoted to the family's work. We weren't sure the idea would interest them, but to our delight it appealed to them very much. That's where the process really began, in terms of the Wyeths becoming our active partners. They chose to make available to us the Maine-related works from their own collection: some 4,500 objects. The Wyeths have been involved in every step of the building process.
Q: You mentioned before that the inaugural exhibition is titled Wondrous Strange. What can visitors expect to see?
CC: Wondrous Strange is a thematic exhibition that includes works not only by all three Wyeths but by Howard Pyle, who was N.C.'s teacher. I think the exhibition will make a lot of people sit up and take notice, because it offers a new way to think about the Wyeth family.
Wondrous Strange traces the profound influence of Howard Pyle on all three generations of Wyeths. We hope to show how N.C. conveyed some of Pyle's romantic sensibility to his son and grandson. A lot of the paintings we'll be showing are not what people think of as typical of the Wyeths. They are not landscapes. They're portraits, but in the most off-beat ways.
Q: What is the meaning of the title, Wondrous Strange?
CC: The title, and the exhibition, were conceived of by Betsy James Wyeth, Andrew's wife. As the family's unofficial archivist and historian, she knows the work of all three generations better than any art historian or critic alive. In fact she edited a comprehensive volume of letters by N.C. which may well be among the most significant bodies of correspondence by an American artist ever published. "Wondrous Strange" is a phrase that the family often uses to describe their own work. Coincidentally or not, it occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet. And there are aspects of the strange and wondrous that take on qualities of tragedy and comedy in all three generations' work. Anyway, Betsy has long recognized the unreal qualities of dream and illusion that are at the heart of the Wyeth's art.
Q: You are opening with a thematic exhibition that takes a point of view on the Wyeths' work.
CC: Yes, we wanted to do that, to avoid mounting another "greatest hits" kind of exhibition, which has been done, or focusing on only one body of work--such as the Olson family paintings, for example, or the Helga paintings.
By contrast, we're able to show here how the Wyeths, starting with N.C., took the tradition that Howard Pyle represented and extended it several steps beyond realism. We're showing how there's a strong narrative content in the work, even if the narrative is about the Wyeths' own minds working away. I think the exhibition is going to cause a reassessment, at least in some circles, of who the Wyeths are and what they've been doing all along.
Map courtesy of Farnsworth Museum.
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