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Wyeth procures 'magic realism'

ATLANTA — After hard freezing scorches the fields, there comes a moment in late winter when it seems impossible that even a single green blade will ever pierce the solid brownness. In Andrew Wyeth's imagination, it never does.

"Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic," a retrospective covering seven decades of the 88-year-old Pennsylvania artist's career, opened at the newly expanded High Museum of Art Nov. 12.

By focusing on paintings of painstakingly realistic inanimate objects and monochromatic brown landscapes, the exhibit shows how Wyeth gradually erased human warmth out of his works and left aching, hopeless voids that won't be filled.

His early watercolors, impressionistic, animated and bright like Winslow Homer's, turn into frigid tempera still lifes. When he doesn't edit out human figures — a small gallery shows his doing just that through various sketches of "Groundhog Day" — he turns them into living corpses, usually prone, often with their eyes shut.

His apparently old-fashioned realism of meticulous details is only a facade temporarily hiding a disturbing contemporary meditation on life's meaningless finality.

"This is magic realism," said curator Anne Knutson. "It all comes out of his fertile imagination."

Most often, Wyeth, who declined to be interviewed, turns objects into stand-ins for his wife, his friends, even himself.

The 1951 tempera "Trodden Weed" zooms in on a worn pair of tan boots standing on a microcosm of crunchy, brown grass. The only detail that makes the painting stop short of surrealism, the only reference to a human being, is the swirl of a dark coat a few inches above the boots.

"You think this is just a painting of boots, but still have a sense there is more," Knutson said. "You don't quite know what it is — he loves that."

So what are the boots? A self-portrait Wyeth painted after he got a taste of mortality during an operation. It doesn't matter to him that that is the kind of insight a viewer would never have into the intensely private collection — the painting itself belongs to Wyeth, like half of those in the exhibit — without the explicatory museum label.

"He is so amazing in the way his mind moves through objects into his recollections," said Kathleen Foster, the American art curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibit will travel next (in March 2006). "He wants you to go into your private reverie."

And that reverie is bound to focus obsessively on death, in the best tradition of "memento mori" — remember you will die — still lifes. But while those paintings inserted rotting details in gorgeous fruit, food and flower compositions to instruct viewers life can't last, Wyeth's portraits of empty vessels, closed doors and even people are implacable statements of loss.

Even without knowing that the scratched wooden door and the rusty buckets in "Alvaro and Christina" are eulogies to his two dead friends by those names, no viewer can escape the sense of claustrophobic emptiness. The lack of humanity becomes more ferocious even than that in Edward Hopper's paintings, because here it's human presence, not just community, that is missing.

After four main sections divided in paintings of nature — especially landscapes where Wyeth lives, in Pennsylvania and Maine — vessels, thresholds and portraits, the show closes with a room dedicated to Wyeth's manager and wife of 66 years, Betsy.

Wyeth is fond of saying that Betsy was the ordering, if oppressive, influence, while his model Helga — whose nudes caused a national sensation when a collector exhibited them 15 years after Wyeth had started to secretly paint them — represented the wild side of his personality, Knutson said.

But aside from the rigorous and masterful naturalism of his technique, it's not order that is striking in a painting like the one concluding the show, "Otherworld" from 2002.

In it, Betsy gazes out to their home through a plane window. But her face is hidden, the house is barely visible in the fog. What's striking is the void — the expanse of the shiny table, the unoccupied giant leather seat, the gaping window.

"He's trying to freeze time," Knutson said.

Just like that crackling, brown frozen field of weeds under Wyeth's boots, the implacable emptiness in his paintings couldn't be chillier.