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.
“I wish I’d gone further with it. His body was extraordinary and he had no qualms about walking around nude,” the artist, 55, says. “But I was young then and I was reluctant to show the paintings, thinking, Oh, Christ. Everyone is going to say, ‘You’re having a huge affair.”‘
Which, of course, begs the question, especially given Nureyev’s reputation for intense passions. Did the two men ever have an affair?
“No. No. God, no,” says Wyeth, who doesn’t mind being asked the question at all. “He never made any approach to me which, at the time, I thought was very curious. I mean, we were very close and what not. We would kiss hello and that sort of thing. But there was no physical thing. I think he just sensed I didn’t go that route.”
Wyeth recalls Nureyev as “a close friend but still prickly.
“But it just about killed me. After about a year and a half, I was so drained by the thing. I didn’t do a portrait of anyone for 14 years. He wanted to see everything I did. He didn’t rip up anything, but I’ve never worked with anyone who had more concern as to what I was doing and how he was appearing.”
Nureyev’s need to control ended the dancer’s relationship with another Wyeth subject, Pop Art cultural guru Andy Warhol.
“He loathed Warhol,” Wyeth recalls. “That was unfortunate. Andy took some photographs. Rudolf did not have people photograph him unless he had control. And he tore the camera out of Andy’s hands and threw it on the ground. Whenever I would suggest, ‘Well Rudolph, can Andy join us,’ he would says, ‘No. He is ugly.”‘
In the Seventies, while working on some sketches of Warhol, Wyeth began working out of Warhol’s studio, where he first met Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he painted while the Austrian emigre was making the film “Pumping Iron.”
“I was ostensibly doing Andy’s portrait,” Wyeth says. “But Andy loved the idea of Schwarzenegger. Every queen from 50 miles around descended on The Factory to see Mr. Universe. Arnold, of course, could barely speak English. He started making moves on what he thought were all these women.
“One day we were working and Andy came into the studio, where I’d just finished working. ‘Oh Jamie,”‘ recalls Wyeth, imitating Warhol’s soft, ingratiating voice. “‘There is this really beautiful girl Arnold would love to meet. Can I bring her in?’ I said fine, and in swept this Spanish woman dressed in a taffeta ballgown at about 4:30 in the afternoon accompanied by Victor Hugo, Halston’s lover. Why I didn’t think something was a little weird, I don’t know. Arnold, who was pulling on his clothes, was saying, ‘Where do you live? When can I meet you?’ and starting to move in. She lifts her ballgown and here is this huge erect penis. It’s a guy, a famous transvestite who posed for Salvador Dali. I thought poor Arnold was going to have a coronary. And Andy kept saying, ‘Oh, isn’t she so pretty? You’re better as a girl.’ It was one of those ‘Factory Moments.”‘
But Wyeth isn’t sure whether he’ll revisit the Nureyev drawings again, which he reworked after the dancer’s death in 1993. These days Wyeth — who has painted portraits of John F. Kennedy (posthumously), Paul Mellon and president-elect Jimmy Carter (for Time’s cover) — spends much of his time on his island in Maine painting seagulls and ravens (which Wyeth attracted by importing a dead dairy cow onto his island). Still, he keeps an apartment at the Watergate in Washington, an apartment in Manhattan and a farm in Delaware. A supporter of former presidential candidate Al Gore, he says he’s pleasantly surprised with the Bush administration, all except for Attorney General John Ashcroft.
“At first I wondered why Bush was appointing all these old farts. But now I think, thank God. The people around him are so good. All except for Ashcroft,” he says, referring to the $8,000 spent by the Department of Justice to put curtains around the naked breast of an Art Deco statue of Justice in the Justice Department and around the waist of her male counterpart.
“He does bother me. What is all that about?”