The Norman Rockwell Museum in the artist’s hometown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts is the chief repository of his work. Currently, a selection of 44 Rockwell paintings from Stockbridge is on view at the Tacoma Art Museum, accompanied by drawings, studies, photographs, and framed reproductions of all 321 of his iconic covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The show, and particularly the opportunity to see Rockwell originals, offers a sometimes surprising perspective on an artist everyone thinks they already know, as KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, observes.
Up until quite recently, one did not admit to liking Norman Rockwell in polite company, at least so far as the art world was concerned. Rockwell’s work-for-hire magazine covers, posters, and illustrations so unashamedly embraced everything that contemporary art had rejected – sentimentality, wholesomeness, photographically precise realism – that it stood to reason that the very same people who liked Rockwell were the enemies of modern art. Rockwell was the Red State answer to Andy Warhol, enshrining a version of America that was false and anachronistic – or so the argument went.
Although one still does not regularly see Norman Rockwell paintings hung in the permanent collections of major museums – where he would in fact be an odd presence alongside exact contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, or Thomas Hart Benton – the arrival of a traveling show is no longer an occasion for the tedious “art or not art” discussion Schjeldahl was alluding to. The objections to adding Rockwell to our art pantheon still exist, but the objectors are much fewer, and less vocal, than previously.
Genre painters, artists who specialize in story-telling pictures of everyday life, have in fact been a feature of Western Art since at least the time of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. His works, and those of his immediate followers during the Dutch Golden Age, used the life of the rural peasants as a stage on which to enact dramas of celebration and coupling, quarrels and drunkenness. Every century since featured artists who worked in a similar vein, using a variety of characters and settings. I personally have a weakness for the 19th Century Victorian Moralists and Russian Itinerants. By Rockwell’s time fine art had pretty much ceded the work of telling stories to illustrators and filmmakers, and it is with cinema auteurs like Frank Capra or John Ford that Rockwell has perhaps his closest affinity. His work is like an enormous series of film stills (his published artworks number in the thousands), with each illustration the result of a meticulous preparation of plot (mostly of Rockwell’s own devising), composition, props, cast, lighting, and action.
The current show features as its centerpiece materials showing the artist at work on one such undertaking, a very cinematic night scene of the 1965 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. The display highlights Rockwell thoroughness – there are handwritten descriptions of the victims, including their clothing, body type, and number of times they were shot, as well as the weather and the position of the moon, and photographs of the models enacting the drama. The display also demonstrates the trade-off for an artist who happens to be an illustrator; after five weeks of work, the client decided to use Rockwell’s rough sketch rather than the final painting, finding it more expressive and perhaps, more “modern”, in spite of the fact that the stark, nearly monochromatic "Murder in Mississippi" is a striking, effective work. For Rockwell, such editorial tinkering was part of life as a commercial artist.
For many visitors, the topical pictures on view – besides "Murder" there is a painting of a black girl walking to school protected by Federal marshals, and a tense Christmas scene in Israeli-occupied Bethlehem - will introduce a lesser-known aspect of Rockwell’s career, another reason he has been thought worthy of a critical reassessment. When no longer restricted by the much more conservative world-view of the Post, Rockwell chose to insert himself into the midst of the fray, becoming a voice in the very-turbulent politics of the 1960s and 1970s working for the more liberal magazine Look.
The other most surprising feature of Rockwell’s work, almost always commented on by people who see the original art, is how well it holds up as stand-alone painting, quite independent of its life as the source of a magazine cover or advertisement. The school integration piece, for example, is very formally composed of symmetrically- arranged, marching figures in shallow relief, like those of the Parthenon frieze. The urban setting is depicted by means of a gritty surface with sand and gravel added to the paint to simulate a rough sidewalk, and a background concrete wall actually scooped and gouged with relief. The finished piece is huge for a magazine illustration destined to be reproduced only a few inches high, measuring a full 3 X 5 feet; given the fact that Rockwell did not paint for exhibitions, one has to conclude that he simply felt the epic subject deserved an epic scale, never mind who would see the original work itself.
A similar note is struck by the equally famous illustration Art Critic, a humor piece where a young copyist is ogled by the paintings he is examining. Besides doing brilliant takeoffs of some of his favorite artists – in this case Rubens and Hals – Rockwell indulges his love of paint by loading his depiction of an artist’s palette with heavy dollops of pigment that literally erupt from the canvas, far more texture than could appear in the printed result. Elsewhere he uses chiaroscuro light effects, Impressionist broken color, and thick, sensual brushwork that is clearly derived from close study of the masters, both old and more recent. That Rockwell found the art of his own time of interest and inspiration is made clear in his including a very edgy self-portrait of Picasso alongside those of Durer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh in one of two spectacular paintings in the show of the artist at work. Elsewhere there is a photograph (but, alas, not the resulting painting) of Rockwell literally throwing paint from cans onto a canvas on the floor, part of the process of creating a Post cover that paid affectionate and intelligent homage to Jackson Pollock.
The Post covers themselves – all 323 of them – are the main feature of the second of the two rooms of the exhibition. Since Rockwell’s nearly 60-year career is far too complex and varied to summarize in a single show, a browsing of the decades-long set of his most characteristic work is a required part of the experience. There are many things that are striking about such an overview of his production: how much his style evolved, and improved, over the years, as both his skill and his editors allowed for far more ambitious compositions; how great was his mastery of the basic elements of composition, pose, and characterization (Charles Dickens comes to mind); and how deeply and sincerely he was invested in his particular, self-admittedly fictional, construct of America. His artwork was designed to be understood in an instant and leave no bitter aftertaste, but his vignettes of childhood, baseball, young romance, returning soldiers, kindly doctors, and family life are endlessly inventive, and never without humor or warmth. What makes the equally popular Thomas Kincaid so odious is not simply the cloying sweetness of his paintings (Rockwell detractors make the same complaint), but our sense that the artist doesn’t believe a word of it; with Rockwell, we are never in doubt.
It would be a cold-hearted observer, indeed, who could remain indifferent to this ingratiating work, and now, thanks to the shifting tides of artistic taste, it can be enjoyed as more than a guilty pleasure.