(Norman Rockwell, 1894-1978)
Norman Rockwell keeps pricking my art historical conscience. First, there was the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1985, where, to my disbelief, I saw hanging, right in the midst of Picasso, Mondrian, and Miro, a picture of a spunky little girl, smiling proudly over her newly acquired black eye as she waits outside the principal's office for her comeuppance. An adventurous new curator, Gregory Hedberg, had elevated this Rockwell canvas from the storeroom to the twentieth-century pantheon upstairs, and there it stuck out like a sore but mesmerizing thumb. I had been taught to look down my nose at Rockwell, but then, I had to ask myself why. If it had already become respectable to scrutinize and admire the infinite detail, dramatic staging, narrative intrigues, and disguised symbols of Victorian genre paintings, why couldn't the same standards apply here?
I shelved the question until 1996, when, almost by accident, I passed by Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and thought I'd like to see Robert A. M. Stern's 1993 shrine to Rockwell and, while there, the art as well. Stern's postmodern housing for this revered popular master turned out to be the wittiest fusion of squeaky clean colonial revival and sophisticated neoclassical detail, but it was the contents that floored me. Inside, without the distractions of modern art, I became an instant convert to the enemy camp, wondering how anybody but the most bigoted modernist could resist not only the mimetic magic of these paintings, but the no less magical way they transformed a mindboggling abundance of tiny observations - a choice of tie, an upholstery pattern, a hairdo, a plate of celery - into essential props for the story told. And lest we think we've been had by a shallow conjuror, we can turn to respectable authorities to uphold the pro-Rockwell view. As Karal Ann Marling pointed out in her 1997 monograph on Rockwell, a reservoir of information delivered in the sprightliest way, John Updike - an amateur art writer who is better than most professionals - is also a fan, and once troubled to explain why.
We are learning that there are many fresh approaches to Rockwell, even psychobiographical ones, since both his personal and professional life were fraught with crises ranging from a recurrent insecurity about being pigeonholed as a lowly illustrator to a serious midlife depression that landed him in the hands of the German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, himself a student of Anna Freud. But the most fruitful context for Rockwell is probably the big saga of twentieth-century American history, in both the headlines and the small print. In literature, Rockwell takes us from Horatio Alger to Sinclair Lewis; in architecture and design, from the colonial revival (seen at its most ambitious in Rockwell's Yankee Doodle mural for Princeton's impeccably proto-postmodernist Nassau Inn) to George Nelson's Brave New World interiors and the Eames chair; in social history, from the advice of Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer "never to show colored people [on the Post's cover] except as servants" to the consciousness-raising images Rockwell made for Look in the 1960s documenting the traumatic realities of desegregation in the South. Beginning with quaint myths of American innocence, when the most shocking crime was a bunch of Booth Tarkington kids who dare to ignore a "No Swimming" sign, we end up in a world so ugly that - as recorded in John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie (1962) and captured forever in Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With - an immaculately dressed little black girl named Ruby Bridges has to be accompanied to her New Orleans school daily under the protection of four U.S. marshals, while white crowds threaten and jeer. Rockwell may have agonized about being more of an illustrator than a "fine" artist, but his best work, such as this outing of a hideous American secret, makes such hierarchies as irrelevant as the old fashioned prejudice that photography must be a lower art than painting. Who can forget the shrill contrast of this tidy, regimented march to school against a city wall bearing the partly effaced graffiti scrawl "NIGGER" (which parallels the artist's signature below, rendered in mock schoolboy, lower case penmanship) and the remnants of a tomato that's just been hurled, a visceral burst of skin and pulp that looks like the bloody aftermath of a firing squad?
Or perhaps the wall looks like a painting by Cy Twombly, one of those occasional shocks of familiarity that helps place Rockwell within expectations of twentieth-century art. Such reminders, overt and subliminal, keep making unexpected appearances in his work. His The Connoisseur pinpoints the puzzlements of newfangled modern art, even inventing a plausible Jackson Pollock, whose drip techniques Rockwell apparently enjoyed imitating, even in his sixty-eighth year. Do we have here a Mike Bidlo avant la lettre? And for a new kind of spine-chilling social realism, his Southern Justice, an eerily lit document of the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, previews both Mark Tansey's painted sepia photographs and Leon Golub's close up accounts of contemporary brutality.
Such connections may be fortuitous, but there is no doubt that Rockwell, who was unhappy to think he occupied so low a rung on the ladder of high art, demonstrated again and again that he was knowledgeable about museum worthy traditions and even the latest mode in modern art, which lured him to Paris in 1923. His Triple Self-Portrait tells all: a bittersweet joke of the lightweight Yankee facing not only his own bemused mirror image and a big white canvas, but also a tacked on anthology of small reproductions offering noble precedents for self-portraiture - Durer, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and, most surprising, a particularly difficult Picasso that mixes an idealized self-portrait in profile with an id-like female monster attacking from within. He once avowed that Picasso was "the greatest," and it might be wondered whether Girl at Mirror, in which a young girl compares herself to a glamour-puss photo of Jane Russell, is Rockwell's homespun homage to The Museum of Modern Art's masterpiece. And if Rockwell nodded humbly in Picasso's direction, there's no doubt that Mondrian played a role, too, in a work likeShuffleton's Barbershop, which offers an almost humorous marriage of the modern Dutch master's severely rectilinear and asymmetrical geometries, translated into the perpendicular mullions of a barbershop window, to the American version of Dutch seventeenth-century realism, with a view through the darkened barbershop to a bright, distant room where, after hours, the locals relax with amateur music making. And considering Rockwell's witty allusion to Mondrian, perhaps he also threw in a bit of Cubism in the free-floating verbal snippets of the old-fashioned gilded letters on the shop window that identify this homey place: BARBER, SHUFFLETON PROP.
But I, for one, am happy now to love Rockwell for his own sake, and not because he learned some tricks from Mondrian and other artists represented in museums. Taut planar geometries may provide the armature for New Television Antenna, but more important, the picture distills that delirious, world-shaking moment in 1949, when suddenly all Americans (this one living in a symbolically derelict Victorian gabled attic) attached to their roofs TV antennas that superseded the spires on nearby churches. And if we are far enough away from World War II to relish nostalgically some cheerleading from the home front, Rockwell offers Rosie the Riveter, in which Michelangelo's Isaiah becomes a muscular, lipsticked redhead equipped with a lunch box, a phallic rivet gun, a white bread ham sandwich, and a copy of Mein Kampf kept underfoot. These days, gallons of academic ink could be spilled over the feminist issues foreshadowed in this campy icon of macho womanhood at war.
It's a tribute to Rockwell's diverse powers that his art now seems to look in so many directions, including transatlantic ones. The recent revival of interest in the Swede Carl Larsson's popular illustrations of turn of the century domestic bliss provides some European parallels to Rockwell's early fantasies of Pleasantville. Back on this side of the Atlantic, his art gains new dimensions when seen in the context of not only his commercial contemporaries, such as the illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, but also later populist artists such as Ben Shahn, whose social evangelism Rockwell would eventually share. But the larger point is that, just in time for the new millennium, we may have a new Rockwell. Now that the battle for modern art has ended in a triumph that took place in another century, the twentieth, Rockwell's work may become an indispensable part of art history. The sneering, puritanical condescension with which he was once viewed by serious art lovers can swiftly be turned into pleasure. To enjoy his unique genius, all you have to do is relax.
- From Robert Rosenblum, "Reintroducing Norman Rockwell", in "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People"