For its seventy-fifth-anniversary issue of November 1977, ARTnews asked a group of artworld people to name the most underrated and overrated artist of our century. I responded with what I thought was a witty one-liner, nominating Andrew Wyeth for both awards. Back then, in the 1970s, Wyeth triggered what seemed to me excessively wild extremes of disagreement. On the one hand, in 1976, the would-be populist museum director Thomas Hoving elected Wyeth to be the first living American artist given a retrospective in the old-master sanctuary of the Met. On the other, Wyeth-phobia was so virulent that it could unite in sputtering hostility even such unlike critics as Hilton Kramer and Henry Geldzahler, whom one expected never to share an opinion, pro or con. Today, ten years later, I find the situation surprisingly the same. The appearance last summer of Wyeth's portraits of Helga on the covers of Time and Newsweek (not to mention Art & Antiques) was an ongoing testimony to Wyeth's stature as the supreme icon maker for the greater part of the American public (and soon, perhaps, the Russian one, after a projected Wyeth family show is seen in the Soviet Union); but his name continues to provoke grimaces of disgust or anger in most right-thinking people who take modern art seriously. In short, he may still be the most underrated and overrated artist, which in turn may mean that it's time to temper such black-and- white emotions of love and hate with a few shades of gray.
Wyeth's case is in many ways like Bouguereau's. Both artists, in their time, became symbols of overwhelming popular success that could easily be transformed into an imaginary enemy who tried to combat those artists and spectators who fought for the cause of modernism. And although that battle has been won so long ago that today "postmodernism" is a household word, there is enough knee-jerk reflex left from those venerable struggles to kick up old passions. Amazingly, the Bouguereau retrospective of 1984-85 could still be experienced as an assault on the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Impressionists and their progeny, even though a closer look also indicated how this much beloved and much despised academic master shared many goals, forms, and sentiments with Renoir, Cézanne, and even Picasso. And Wyeth, too, needs to be looked at closely as simply the artist he is, rather than as a cunning demon whose grass-roots constituency would win a landslide election against the modernist party. (A comparable phenomenon is found in Canada, where those who espouse the cause of modern art furiously grin and bear the coast-to-coast popularity of Alex Colville, who paints chilly, sharp-focus scenes of Canadian outdoor life with an ascetic spirit