By  on February 14, 2002

WASHINGTON -- "To be afraid of a penis in the year 2002 -- what is this all about?" laments Jamie Wyeth as he walks through an exhibition of a selection of 35 of his paintings, sketches and drawings of his friend and artistic obsession, Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev. The six-week show at the Kennedy Center will help launch the center's 10-year arrangement to feature annual tours by the Kirov Ballet, Opera and Symphony, beginning with a gala opening on Feb. 19.

Long before Mikhail Baryshnikov arrived on the New York scene, Rudolf Nureyev made ballet history, defecting from the Soviet Union in 1961 in Paris while on a tour with the Kirov. Sixteen years later, Wyeth spent about 18 months with Nureyev sketching and painting him. After the dancer's death from Aids in Paris in 1993, the artist began reworking his creations, the results of which are included in the Kennedy Center show. After it closes in Washington, the exhibition will move to the New York Public Library's new Lincoln Center facility, where it will open March 22. It will then go on to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine (June 9-Jan. 5, 2003) and the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. (Jan. 18-May 18).

Showing in politically correct Washington isn't without its problems. While thrilled with the show at the Kennedy Center, Wyeth is clearly puzzled by its decision to omit any works that show Nureyev in the nude. Explaining the New York Public Library's decision to include the nude drawing, its curator Barbara Cohen-Stratyner says, "Most of our visitors are older."

"I'm thinking of putting up a sign that says, 'If you want to see the nude, come to my apartment'," says Wyeth, who in fact did invite the Kennedy Center brass over to his Watergate apartment the night after his opening to thank them for the show.

Kennedy Center director Michael Kaiser said the Center decided to drop the sketch of a nude male figure because it was not deemed appropriate for young school children visiting the center.

Wyeth, who first met the dancer through his wife, Phyllis, concedes he had his own reservations about painting Nureyev in the nude. But they're far from being prudish.

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