When “Wind from the Sea,” a 1947 painting by Andrew Wyeth, entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in 2009, the museum wasted no time in building a show around it. Mounted just five years later, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” represents a new body of research around the great American realist, and the second Wyeth retrospective to grace the museum in 30 years.
That may be all a viewer needs to know to judge the magnitude of the National Gallery’s failure in pursuing this show. On its own merits, “Looking Out, Looking In” is a shallow effort to catapult the museum’s new acquisition to the ranks of Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” (1948), perhaps the best-loved worst painting in history, a work that will linger on in the form of posterized reproductions, mouse pads, and coffee mugs until the end of time. In context, though, this Wyeth retrospective is something much worse: a cataract that betrays the astigmatism of the National Gallery.
Since the museum opened in 1941, it has mounted just one exhibition by a living woman (painter Helen Frankenthaler, in 1993). It has organized just one exhibition by a living African-American (painter Kerry James Marshall, in 2013). Neither has the National Gallery ever seriously entertained the presence of women or people of color in art history, except in utterly rare cases. When “Degas/Cassatt” opens on Sunday, it will mark the National Gallery’s sixth Cassatt exhibition since 1950. As it stands, Cassatt shows make up almost exactly one-half of solo exhibitions by women put on by the National Gallery. Four women account for all the rest: Dutch Golden Age master Judith Leyster, French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, German modernist sculptor and painter Käthe Kollwitz, and the immortal Georgia O’Keeffe.
The situation is even bleaker for art by people of color. Whereas the museum can at least boast 14 solo exhibitions by women across its 73-year history, it has mounted just one solo exhibition by a Mexican artist—Diego Rivera (2004)—and three solo exhibitions by African-American artists, all in the last decade: Marshall (2013), Martin Puryear (2008), and Romare Bearden (2003). (The retrospective on Puryear—a living black artist who was raised in D.C. and educated at Catholic University—was organized by the Museum of Modern Art, though.)
No question, the number of objections to judging a museum such as the National Gallery of Art by 20th-century standards for inclusivity outstrips the number of exhibitions by artists other than white men. It’s an encyclopedic art museum, not just an American art museum. Classicists write off Coltrane as inferior to Beethoven, and the same argument holds for modern art versus the old masters. Living artists haven’t survived the test of time that, say, Titian has, according to the people who would keep revisionists at bay. It’s more difficult and more important to show older, rarer works than newer, more easily acquired paintings. Some of these arguments are reasonable: I’m as fond of Albrecht Dürer as the next art-lover. (And perhaps a lot fonder.) But the cumulative effect of so many reasonable arguments is a national museum that does not show artists by people of color or women.
However, this exhibition—“Looking Out, Looking In”—would not fly under even the flimsiest banner typically raised by the defenders of canon. The premise for the exhibit is miserly: Ultimately, it’s an exhibition of Wyeth watercolors, drawings, and tempera paintings that feature windows. Accordingly, the exhibition suggests we can learn something specific from Wyeth’s treatment of windows, mostly as they manifest in studies for paintings of the Olson House, the famous late 18th-century Colonial farmhouse in Cushing, Maine, depicted in “Christina’s World” and many, many other paintings by Wyeth.
Ostensibly, it’s a fascinating subject. For painters, windows present a technical challenge as surfaces that diffract and distort light, as well as a narrative opportunity for depicting planes bound by a liminal tension—the world within and the world without. From as far back as the 18th century, windows have tantalized artists.
Yet the focus on a single object characteristic of Wyeth’s work doesn’t sustain the narrative that the National Gallery would have us accept about the artist, who died in 2009: namely, that he is the inheritor of a legacy passed down by the great first-generation American modernists, Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. In texts accompanying the show, the National Gallery builds a legend around “Wind from the Sea”: The wind rustling through the curtain of an upper-story room no longer accessible to Christina Olson, who suffered from polio, served for Wyeth as a portrait of Christina.
The narrower you focus on the works in “Looking Out, Looking In,” the more you’ll find moments of technical genius—though there’s nothing here to rival the toxic hues Hopper used to reveal the alienation of modern life or the dazzling perspectives Sheeler found to depict the totalizing geometries of the emergent industrial city. But from a broader perspective, “Looking Out, Looking In” shows Wyeth’s mode of realism as a dead end, a sequestered suburban cul-de-sac amid the utterly explosive era of ideas that defined post-war American painting.
Stepping out further and looking back, the show itself serves as a lens for seeing the National Gallery. How many exhibits by Wyeth will the museum mount before it considers the art of the Civil Rights Era? How exhausted must the scholarship on Cassatt be before the National Gallery will turn to another American woman? Beyond shameful, it’s just a shame: The scholarship and breadth of the Romare Bearden show made it the definitive statement on the artist’s value. It’s the only major survey of a black artist the National Gallery has organized in my lifetime—or ever.
There will always be reasons for the National Gallery to favor exhibitions by white men from Europe and America. The work of Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch and William Merritt Chase and Arcimboldo will never not be worth showing, and so the canon will persist, even as the National Gallery comes to look less and less like the world it ostensibly serves. (“National Gallery”: whose nation?) But the Wyeth show has been a window of opportunity for the National Gallery to erase rather than embrace the latest addition to the canon. Unfortunately, “Looking Out, Looking In” has the museum looking backward.