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Dancing King

James Wyeth's artistic infatuation with Rudolph Nureyev doesn't move us that much.


James Wyeth treats Rudolf Nureyev like a god.

Wyeth is the son of painter Andrew Wyeth (whose famous "Christina's World," with its prairie setting, always makes us think of Kansas). He was clearly in love — if only in the platonic sense — with the iconic dancer, and ultimately, Wyeth's skill as a painter takes backseat to his beloved star.

Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer is a traveling exhibit arranged by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine. It consists of more than 35 paintings and drawings by Wyeth (along with 60 photographs, a short documentary and a few of Nureyev's costumes) that frequently show Nureyev in still, studied and moody pieces.

Wyeth was intrigued the first time he met Nureyev in New York City in 1974, and the artist followed his creative curiosity for the next 24 years. Wyeth even re-worked many of the paintings after Nureyev died in 1993.

Many of the portraits show Nureyev standing in repose, his mouth slightly open, with his hair thin and splayed. His narrow nose, pursed lips and furrowed brow are part sensitive poet, part confident rock star. "Full Face and Partial Chest, Head, Nureyev (Study #10)" suggests an intensity that the dancer usually exhibited only onstage. The beige background practically swallows Nureyev, though the taut skin of his chest, his collar bone and his chin stand out in sharp contrast, and Wyeth draws attention to the light on Nureyev's face that also shines on his neck and breast.

"Profile with Black Wash Background, Head, Nureyev (Study #23)" is almost romantic in its depiction. Wyeth paints him with an attention-grabbing angular jaw and tousled hair, with a distant and dreamy expression. A black cloud of paint suggests that he's lost in thought, while two streams of paint run sloppily down the side of the picture, balanced by the five mini-circles on the opposite side of the frame.

Nureyev's pose — hands on hips, slight pout on the lips — becomes familiar in the way Andy Warhol's "Marilyn" or "John Wayne" prints used repeated images with slight color and background alterations for different effect. (A handsome coffee-table book accompanying the exhibit informs us that Warhol had photographed Nureyev for an Interview magazine article, but Nureyev, dissatisfied with the images, tore them up.)

As the short documentary film runs in the gallery, Wyeth's voice echoes off the floor, filling the space. He tells us how particular Nureyev was about how he was depicted. Wyeth says his Nureyev work became obsessive, that he wanted to become so familiar with him that he could "draw him with my eyes closed."

Wyeth admits that Nureyev's death freed him up to draw the dancer any way he wanted. One example is the haunted "Mort de Noureev," with its elements of Shakespearean tragedy: Nureyev lies dead on the stage, prone with his left arm extended above and away from him, his muscular legs flaccid. A bright-orange background separates him from two ballerinas who are covering their faces in sadness. Wyeth's imagination is obviously taking hold of his subject; he's manipulating it to his satisfaction. The painting makes the portraits Nureyev approved of seem too static and formal by comparison.

Wyeth's "Automaton" paintings work the same way. "Automaton," painted in 1979, depicts Nureyev as a scarecrow/clown hybrid with a big floppy hat, staring at the viewer with a dazed, creepy face and a pitch-black forest and full moon rising behind him. "Automaton, Study #1" is a similar shot on a smaller scale.

Also notable is the photo of Nureyev's New York City debut, performing "Don Quixote" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1962. The camera catches him smiling in mid-twirl, his gifts as a dancer registered in the delighted, bewildered and enthusiastic audience of dancers and crew on the stage behind him.

Overall, though, the show is unlikely to move those who aren't already interested in dance and in one Russian dancer in particular. The many black-and-white photos, the banners, the short film, and the costumes say as much about Nureyev as Wyeth's work, and those aspects make the show feel more didactic than artistic.

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