Thirty years have passed since one of the splashiest publicity coups ever made by a painter, when Andrew Wyeth’s stash of drawings and paintings of model Helga Testorf hit the covers of Time and Newsweek. Testorf had been modeling for Wyeth for 15 years, and not even the artist’s wife and business manager, Betsy Wyeth, knew about it. He had made some 240 works, which were snatched up by collector Leonard E.B. Andrews for millions of dollars.
Andrews lent some to the National Gallery of Art for a show that toured to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1987. Since then, Boston hasn’t seen much of Wyeth, who died in 2009. The MFA did have a retrospective of his son Jamie’s work, in 2014; and the Concord Museum currently features work by his father, N.C. Wyeth. Now Adelson Galleries Boston presents a revealing show, “Andrew Wyeth: Drawings and Watercolors.”
It’s rich in Helga pictures, some of which have not been exhibited before. Warren Adelson, owner of Adelson Galleries, a longstanding New York venue for American art, purchased the Helga collection with several co-investors in the mid-2000s.
Wyeth used words such as “love” and “smitten” when he spoke of Testorf, but he maintained that they did not have a physical relationship. These works suggest a strikingly intimate connection buoyed by the artist’s fascination with the mystery and depth of his model.
She never looks directly at us. The light playing over Testorf’s face and hair in “Seated by a Tree” imbues her with a Pre-Raphaelite glow, yet most of her face is in shadow. She often turns away. In “Untitled (Helga Looking From Afar),” she perches heroically with her back to us, poised like a sea captain on the prow of an immense, spiky section of a fallen tree.
You can see Wyeth’s technical brio, as he toys with composition, scratching off the page the hem of her billowing skirt so we can glimpse the pale sky between her legs. Quick washes alternate with acute attention to gnarled detail along the mammoth log.
How is an artist different from a lover? In several nudes, Testorf reclines and sleeps as Wyeth explores the curves and shadows of her body, lingering on her face. Betsy Wyeth had asked her husband not to tell her when he was working on nudes. Perhaps that’s why he kept Testorf a secret.
Or perhaps he found with her a lovers’ alchemy that can only be realized by two people in private, and it yielded its gold in pictures. Having sex would have risked turning the relationship into something more complicated and more mundane. We may never know what really happened (Testorf remains elusive). The works clearly tell a love story — that of an artist’s passion for his muse.
Radcliffe Bailey, in his new exhibition at Samson, shows up as a shaman as much as an artist. His work touches wounds and stirs spirits, layering the iconography, music, and history of African-Americans, reaching back to Africa.
The pulsing “Notes From Tervuren” collages start with old sheet music, which Bailey bathes in fluid strips of paint, depicting water in which objects bob: African sculptures and masks, saxophones. He equates music with water; they, in turn, connect to the Middle Passage of Africans transported across the seas, enslaved.
Music, like water, can be bluesy and deep. Both are metaphors for the difficult path through life and through history; both have rhythms and swells, and can be sacred. The objects floating by, sometimes against the backdrop of a giant moon, signal creative agency, and consequently hope.
Bailey’s wall sculpture “Blue Black Blue Cool,” a heart-shaped glass vessel, was perhaps once filled with blue liquid, but now most of it is gone, splattered on the wall and dried in a puddle on the floor. It has the look of violence, of a mortal injury, yet the heart, with its blues, remains intact.
Another piece, “Fourth Ward,” refers to a poor New Orleans neighborhood drowned by Hurricane Katrina. The artist covers one side of an old door in gold leaf, turning it into a magical portal. Strings of bottle caps hang on the scruffy other side, recalling Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s magnificent tapestries made with the same material. “Fourth Ward,” like many of Bailey’s works, honors trauma as the starting point of transcendence.
Making a mark
Healing is at the heart of Kim Radochia’s interactive installation “She Rocks” at Object Center, one of SoWa’s several new galleries. Radochia has cast stones from paper and sliced them in half. She invites visitors to write the name of a woman they want to memorialize or celebrate on one half, and write a single word to describe her on the other. Leslie, for instance, is “feisty.”
The act of participating, rather than the installation itself, has the power, here; there’s not much to the stones or to reading about unknown women. But add a name, and you may feel you’ve made a mark in the name of a woman you care about.
Radochia’s moving “Murmuration” paintings are likewise cumulative. She paints paper, tears it up, and affixes the little bits to a drawing on panel. They cluster, stand, and flatten, describing fluid motion and surprising depth. Named after a flock of starlings, they echo the dense, unpredictable peaks and whorls of thousands of birds riding the air.
ANDREW WYETH: Drawings and Watercolors
At Adelson Galleries Boston, 520 Harrison Ave., through May 29. 617-832-0633, www.adelsongalleriesboston.com
At Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 28. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
KIM RADOCHIA: Less
At Object Center, 460 Harrison Ave., through May 29. 617-520-4197, www.objectcenter.workCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.