Walk into the Wyeth Center of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland between now and August 26, and you’re in for a bit of a surprise. You won’t think you’re in artist Andy Warhol’s famed “Factory” in New York City per se, but you might forget you’re in small town coastal Maine. A visiting show organized by the Brandywine River Museum, “Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth, Basquiat,” has taken up summer residency there and the exhibit offers an excursion not only to a place far from Rockland, but far in time as well.
Warhol had invited Jamie Wyeth to the Factory to paint in the 1970s, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s. We see Warhol and Wyeth’s effect on each other in paintings, and the same with Basquiat. The show includes some interesting works by each of the three, and does tie them all together with helpful labeling and arrangement. We learn that Jamie was the one who got Andy more comfortable around the reality of death, this being an especially difficult subject for Warhol after he was shot. There are some paintings by both of them using skulls. They discovered they shared in common a taxidermy interest, collecting dead dogs and cats stuffed for display. Not only do some pictures illustrate this for us, but some of the animals are there too. Basquiat addresses the subject with a voodoo-influenced triptych made of discarded wood commemorating Warhol’s death, and seems to foreshadow his own, a year later, of a drug overdose.
Another stimulating exhibit is “The American-made Alphabet,” with 26 large color photographs by Margot Balboni. It’s a great one to share with kids, and is on display until Sept. 23. All of the pictures were shot from a helicopter to capture some interesting, if not downright bizarre, features of the American landscape. The perspective is one we’re usually not given, and provides a fascinating and unusual way to grapple with these places. We know what urban sprawl or industry can end up doing to a natural environment. The people who design, build and profit off these kinds of places may not have those same concerns about quality of life or see those “side effects” as problems. And so these photographs let us play with some of those perspectives, experiencing how, at a distance, things we might ordinarily consider blights on the landscape or abuses of an environment can take on a perverse kind of beauty, in and of themselves. That they’re manmade environments that seem to disrespect humans — well, there’s the rub.
One other exhibit to note is the tribute to Andrew Wyeth, “Andrew Wyeth at 90.” One can’t help but see much of his work, especially the selection here, as presenting examples of rugged individuals. One could surmise Wyeth is one himself, and that possibly because of that, he has succeeded so well and lived so long. The labeling includes many quotes from Wyeth, explaining what the works meant to him. For one, “Alvaro and Christina,” named for his Olson friends in Cushing, Maine, he says he painted it — an interior of their empty house — after both had died.
It would seem, after viewing these Farnsworth shows, that both father and son — Andrew and Jamie — have found strength from acknowledging death in the midst of life. And Balboni’s photographs, too, can be seen as working that same theme.
For more information on the Farnsworth Art Museum: call (207) 596-6457 or visit www.farnsworthmuseum.org.