This is the last week to view the exhibitions Warhol’s Nature and Jamie Wyeth here at Crystal Bridges. The exhibitions close after October 5. To commemorate the shows, I’ve pulled some excerpts from my interview with Jamie Wyeth several months ago. We talked about his relationship with Andy Warhol, as well as the strange obsessions that fuel his own work. As we move into fall and the Halloween season, I think it’s appropriate to talk with Wyeth about some of the slightly dark elements of his paintings. If you haven’t seen these exhibitions, do take the time to come and enjoy them this week. Warhol’s Nature was curated by our own curator, Chad Alligood, and will not be shown anywhere else, do don’t miss it!
And so what about Andy Warhol? We became great, great friends. I was obviously intrigued by him and his looks at the time. I was introduced by a mutual friend and then said “I’d love to do some drawings of you.” And he said “fine, why not, as long as you pose for me too.” So we ended up working a couple of years. I mean, he gave me part of the Factory downtown, so I worked with that, and then at the townhouse … I did Schwarzeneger’s portrait down there, and a couple of other things. So he as a person … we had a wonderful time. He’d come down there to Chadd’s Ford and spend weekends. He said he liked it because the TV reception was better in Chad’s Ford. Because he’d watch soaps all day. He loved watching soap operas.
He just had a different point of view. But very childlike, you know. In New York we spent most of our time together in toy stores. We bought a train set at one point that we loved. He was a very eclectic collector, of course. As well as I knew him, I was really only allowed into his house three times in our relationship, and it was a rabbit warren. He had a four-story townhouse just down the street actually from my place, and it was just tunnels through all the stuff that he collected. A lot of it just total crap, and the rest of it…fantastic things. And of course then when he died, his sale, the supposed crap, the fiesta ware and what not, went for hundreds of thousands because it looked like Warhol.
What prompts the combination of realism and the sort of magical reality that appears in your work? You know, I don’t really know, but thank God it does. I’m bored with most representational paintings. I certainly don’t want to travel the world and paint scenes, and so I think if you bore into something, out of it is going to come, obviously, some strange things. And I’m now in a series of paintings that I call the Untoward Occurrences on Monhegan Island and I’m just consumed with that, I’m just fascinated.
And what do you mean by “untoward occurrences”? Well they’re just things that have happened, the portrait of Rockwell Kent is that. They’re just things that have happened on this island, 14 miles out at sea, that sort of resonated on this island. They all have sort of a strange twist to them. Again, it’s like probably any small town, but on an island it’s particularly vivid, and I’m sort of caught up in that at this point. (Editor’s Note: In 1953, Rockwell Kent allowed a New York socialite named Sally Moran to spend the summer at his house on Monhegan Island, Maine, after she and her husband divorced. Neither Kent nor his wife were there, though Kent’s daughter spent some time at the house that summer. On the evening of July 9, 1953, Moran went for a walk, and vanished. Three weeks later her body was pulled from the sea. She had a cracked skull and a broken arm, but no signs of drowning. Kent and his family were not implicated, but he later sold the Monhegan house due to the negative publicity. You can read more about it here.)
Gulls show up a lot: what’s with the gulls? The first thing is that that’s what I live with. You know, I live on this island most of the time and the only other inhabitants are gulls. They’re sort of ready models and they’ve gotten to the point with me that they fall asleep, I’m around them so much. And then I think most people’s paintings of gulls, or representations of gulls, are sort of white doves, and they’re not that way at all, they’re scavengers, they’re greedy, nasty … and I love that. And the eye of a gull is more the sea than the sea itself. They’re sort of reptilian, these amazing pale-yellow eyes with a dark pupil. And so I’ve used them. I did a whole series called the Seven Deadly Sins. And that actually came from a dream and God knows where. As near as I can recall, I woke up in the middle of the night—you start doing these hieroglyphic things of what I was thinking—and then the next morning when I woke up at dawn, I looked and my bed was scattered with all of these partial drawings, and I thought “what in the hell?” And then finally I recalled that it was the sins, the seven daily sins. Then I started reading about them, and then I though “why not gulls? Why can’t they be gulls rather of people?” I became totally absorbed by that.
There are chickens, too. One of the works of yours in the Crystal Bridges collection is Cornflakes… Oh yes, that was an obsession too. I went wild over chickens, everything was chickens. I had them all around the farm, of course, and then I stuck them in boxes, taped them down so they’d pose. Everything was chickens.
You must have had really grumpy chickens. Did they run from you? They sure would: “God, it’s that mad artist trying to grab us!”
Your work often has a slightly ominous feeling, as if something has just happened or is about to happen. I hope you feel that, I mean that’s what I want and I think humor is tinged with melancholy and so forth and I think it makes it all the more interesting. A lot of times the things that are couched in humor are in fact rather terrifying. I mean I did a portrait of myself with a pumpkin on my head. Well that was not meant to be amusing—I’m sort of horrified by a vegetable on top of one’s head and what is it and so forth. So that’s all part of the excitement to me. And not just pretty. And the animals that I do, I hope are not viewed as “oh aren’t they cute anthropomorphic creatures.” No, to me a pig is scary. A creature with a head larger than yours is rather frightening. And you get eye contact with them and they’re looking right into your soul. So I hope that resonates in the paintings.