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by Thomas Hoving
This week an amusing little wrinkle in contemporary art history was exposed in New York by the Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge, Mass. The major show of Norman's works, "Pictures for the American People," comprising 70 paintings and over 300 Saturday Evening Post covers, is to end its year-long tour at the single most unlikely venue imaginable -- the Guggenheim Museum, a.k.a. "the museum for non-objective paintings."
The pity was that there were no art critical ideologues and scolders of the likes of Robert Hughes, Michael Kimmelman or Hilton Kramer at the press conference to roll their eyes, gnash their teeth and gag. Too bad there hadn't been a Rockwell show in the offing at the Guggenheim several years ago when Kimmelman slashed Tom Krens to ribbons, for his blundering and ignorant attack would have been even more so.
The announcement was read by "Guggie" chief curator, Lisa Dennison, on behalf of the man who labored hard to get into the avant-guard shrine this "paragon of revanchist, sticky-sweet illustrative crap" as an unnamable art expert once described Rockwell to me -- the quirky, often supremely arrogant and contemptuous curator of 20th-century art Robert Rosenblum. He was in London, "visiting his tailor" it was said (sure) and he was looking forward to the challenge of showing Rockwell in the temple of abstraction and having the chance to reassess the significance of Rockwell's works in the second half of the 20th century. Something was said about the millennium being a time of reassessment and wiping away prejudices.
Whatever. Congrats to Rosenblum for his change of heart about the artist he used to ignore, if not vilify, and for his guts and muscle in getting the show placed at the Guggenheim. It's going to be fun to read the flack he's going to receive at the hands of those art ideologues! Especially Kramer. Unless Hiltie's too tired. I just hope this master-scolder, who seems, sadly enough, mentally burnt-out these days, has the embers left inside him to ignite one last can of his fetching vitriol. Norman Rockwell, as we all know, is making a startling come-back today and Rosenblum isn't alone amongst his former high-brow detractors to recognize (belatedly, but what the hell) that Rockwell was a major art force and an exceptionally good painter.
I personally never had any doubts about the importance of the man as one of the most successful visual mass-communicators of the century. Maybe it was because I was a medievalist. (Not that medieval art is bad art and thus I had a sensitivity to Rockwell's stuff.) In the Middle Ages, art was both high and low, it strove to be popular, it wore many styles ranging from realism to abstraction, it was created mostly to teach, plus it could have a sense of humor. Rockwell's work bridged the gap between high and low art. He savored the flavor of his times and presented it in diverse and dynamic ways -- funny, poignant, reflective, haunting, and never hokey, cooked-up, or saccharine. He turned untold legions of Americans into art appreciators.
I'll never forget my medieval professor, who had a passion for Kirchner and Nolde along with the "brown things" of Byzantine art, once musing that Norman Rockwell was the Frans Hals of 20th-century American art. You know, a scintillating story-teller in love with texture, atmosphere and paint, capable of pulling off the outrageously funny subject along with vivid and serious images.
Do yourself a favor now that it's okay and look deeply at some of Rockwell's topnotch creations when they show.
Take Freedom of Speech, made for the Saturday Evening Post in '43, the face of the tall and stalwart blue-eyed farmer is delineated splendidly and the soft texture of his leather jacket is painted with sheer genius. This is no idealized, gussied-up, sugary daydream, but a real, intense human being (maybe the guy who dug the septic tanks) Rockwell saw at some Vermont town meeting, speaking his piece directly and unselfconsciously.
Take the penetratingly observant painting of 1951 (also a Post cover) called Saying Grace. The little old lady (who's more than a bit nutty, I sense) is there with her little flowered hat bowing her head, clasping her hands, leading the kid along in praise of the Lord. It's in some not-so-great café, filled with truck drivers and cabbies who look upon this charming vignette with a combination of nervous wonder and what-the-hell-is-this? annoyance. The atmosphere is wonderful -- a thick-with-smoke joint looking out through a dirty window on a gray, rainy, gusty day onto a gnarly street in a sad section of town (it's New York 'cuz the guy brilliantly chopped off in the direct left foreground has a newspaper with the New York Times gothic logo) full of trucks, clamor, and meanness. The details are worthy of any master of the Dutch Golden age -- check out the sugar and ketchup and salt containers stacked in the center of the table where the little old lady prays -- they are gleaming, luminous, and sparkling with glints and inner light. The faces of the men are triumphs, not only of bone structure but also of character and personality.
The captivating thing about this and so many other Rockwells is that there's no cuteness here. There's no phony halo or Disney glow around the eccentric old lady and the kid. No sticky-sweet expressions from the bemused onlookers. The saying of grace in that rank interior on that ugly day didn't happen, but it could have and if it had it would have looked just like this. The thing is timeless.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the bookstore:
Best of Norman Rockwell: A Celebration of 100 Years
by Tom Rockwell
Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator
by Thomas S. Buechner