Who better for cover stories than a cover artist? The opening of "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" at Atlanta's High Museum on Saturday, Nov. 5, has provided an occasion for (not wholly unexpected) exchanges of fire between those who, like Hilton Kramer, see the event as an exercise in number-crunching and such bad boy supporters as Dave Hickey and Robert Rosenblum.
Rosenblum, like Hickey, contributes to the catalogue, and sees the show as a declaration that the struggle between High and Popular culture is hopelessly old-fangled. "The war is over and modern art won," Rosenblum told Art News. "Picasso and Jackson Pollock are as popular as Norman Rockwell." It happens that Rosenblum is also partly responsible for the coming of the illustrator's show to the New York Guggenheim -- founded to be a "museum for non-objective art" -- in 2001. Following is how it happened.
"I had virtually by accident gone to see the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and I was totally riveted," Rosenblum says. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Why are people so snooty about him? This is fascinating painting.' And I think I spent more time in front of each painting than I have ever spent looking at Picasso or Titian or anything like that. It kept me looking. And I began to think about it -- that the time had come when he no longer was the enemy. His pictures no longer felt like a threat to the great history of modern art. So that's Part One. I had a conversion." This conversion led to a Rosenblum review of a Rockwell monograph in Bookforum.
"Part Two: The director of the Rockwell Museum had organized this show, which I didn't know anything about," Rosenblum says. "She called me one day and told me about it, remembering, of course, that I had written favorably about him. She said, 'Do you think that there's any New York museum that would take it?' I said 'Gee, I don't know.'
"I never at the time even thought about the Guggenheim. It seemed so ridiculous. The Brooklyn Museum was a candidate. But apparently they were having problems. God! To think that they were having problems then. But this was a scheduling problem. And she called me kind of nervously and said, 'Do you think there's any chance that the Guggenheim would take it?'
"She said she knew Tom Krens from Western Mass. way back when. And I said, well, it seems sort of crazy, a long shot to me, but who knows? Why don't you write to him directly? So apparently she did and typically for the Guggenheim Museum she never got an answer.
"And then in the Sunday Times, you must have seen it, there was the piece about Bad Art? I thought it was appalling, but it did say I was interested in Norman Rockwell and within a matter of days I got a phone call from Tom Krens, saying what would you think about taking that show here to the Guggenheim?
"I said, 'Well, I think that would be a great idea. I'll support it. Whatever it is, it will be an event in 21st-century art history.' So that's how it happened. The decision was made in an instant. And, of course, knowing Tom Krens, I assume that the main thing is that he's assuming lines longer than the ones at "Sensation." But, to be serious about it, I totally endorse it."
Well, The Roving Eye is unpersuaded, but not on "high" art grounds. Indeed, I believe that "low" art, cartoon and illustration positively belong someplace in the canon and would love to see shows of T.T. Heine, Rudolf Wilke and Karl Arnold (Simplicissimus), Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), David Low, Rea Irvin (who designed the New Yorker cover), Otto Messmer (Felix the Cat), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Burne Hogarth (Tarzan Of The Apes), Miguel Covarrubias, Frantisek Kupka, John Held Jr., Toshio Soeki, Vargas, Roland Topor, Fish, Pete Arno, William Heath Robinson, Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso and so on, right up to the newest Japanese masters of anime and manga, in any museum, the Guggenheim whirly-gig included.
But Norman Rockwell does not fit in -- even with this variegated company. Rockwell, who, like an earlier hugely successful illustrator, N.C. Wyeth (Andrew's father) failed in a forlorn attempt at being a "real" avant-gardist -- functioned much more like a Soviet agitprop artist. Certainly the soda-fountain values he was promoting are altogether more palatable than the grain fields or industrial utopias of the Socialist Realists, but it's a bill of goods all the same.
One blunt definition of sentimentality is that it represents feelings-about-feelings. This is Norman Rockwell to a tee, and his most telling images are his most sentimental. (The ones that lack that all-too-familiar warmth, that cheap-music catch in the throat, merely manage to look numbly illustrational, like ads for stuff nobody wants.)
I put this, in an abbreviated version, to Robert Rosenblum. He took it sunnily. "Well, I agree with you," he said. "Except I, and a number of my colleagues, have a long history of rediscovering Victorian narrative art, which, of course, is also agitprop -- even the best of the artists, Holman Hunt, whatever. It's really about the fact that the propaganda is no longer relevant. It's not threatening. I think that is why I was able to look at it afresh -- it just looked to me like something from another era -- just totally irrelevant to the present. I put it in the same category as the Victorian paintings. So that part of it doesn't bother me."
Okay. Perhaps Norman Rockwell will seem a pure maker of picture-stories one day. Not to my eye -- just yet. What my eye can picture, though, is some venerable abstractionist -- somebody who has struggled against a Rockwell-loving establishment, and suffered -- who goes to the High Museum or the Guggenheim only to be confronted by endless Rockwells. See how catching sentimentality can be? But, good grief, what a terrific subject it would have made for Norman Rockwell.
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There are signs of life all over the art world elsewhere, thank goodness, and not just in Brooklyn. For instance, Jeff Koons, that most courteous and soft-voiced of artists, introduced himself to Robert Rauschenberg at an opening at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. The most protean of American artists said, of course I know who you are, and slapped him in the face.
It had been intended as a playful pat but was actually quite a whack, so the embarrassed Rauschenberg promptly began slapping himself in retribution. With things getting lively this quickly, Koons' Nov. 13 opening of "Easyfun" at Sonnabend, New York, his first show of all new work since 1991, promises to be quite an event.
Meantime, the bed that Tracy Emin showed at Lehman Maupin in New York is now in London's Tate Gallery as part of the Turner Prize show. Its explicit kitchen-sink realism -- grungy sheets, used condoms, etcetera -- inspired a couple of Chinese performance artists to use some of the art materials for a pillow fight. They had to be wrestled to the ground and the room was closed for the day. The thing that most struck some observers about the incident was that the tabloid interest was intense -- Emin was as paparazzoed as Princess Di, whereas the local art world basically yawned. "Somebody was bound to do something there," notes the artist Max Wigram.
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Booknotes: Despite, or perhaps because of the wonderful web we inhabit here, the making of limited editions of good books continues, even if it can be an uphill struggle. Scholar-entrepreneur Delano Greenidge published The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp in an edition of just under 4,000 a couple of years back. It cost him "over a million bucks," he notes, and he financed it by selling off his own art collection, which included canvases by Donald Baechler, Jean-Michel Basquiat and A.R. Penck. The edition sold out but left Greenidge still in the hole. He hopes that he will recoup when a soft-cover edition comes out this February at $75. In the meantime, readers can check out Greenidge's latest oeuvre: Contemporary Art from Cuba.
Readers might also look at a new book put out by the San Francisco outfit Arion Press. It's Italo Calvino's shimmering masterpiece, Invisible Cities, and it has been illustrated by Wayne Thiebaud, whose reputation was built on his scrumptious paintings of cream cakes. Thiebaud here uses another of his leitmotifs, cityscapes drawn in vertiginous perspective on transparent acetate (invisible cities, get it?) using inks in ripe colors, like pool-table green and taxi-cab yellow. The edition is 400 and the price is $750.
Finally, a $1,500 book from Taschen -- 464 pages of photographs by Helmut Newton. It is called Sumo all too appropriately, since it weighs in at 66.1 pounds, which makes it (according to a delirious press release) "literally, the largest book ever published." It comes with a special table, designed by Philippe Starck. A coffee-table book with its own coffee-table -- it had to happen.
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There are, as usual, ch-ch-ch-changes. Some people get away from the art world and some people really get away from the art world. At the beginning of October Stefano Basilico shuttered his SoHo gallery, after years of showing such admirable artists as Matthew Antezzo, Toland Grinnell and Cheryl Donegan, and launched himself on a new job. Literally. He will be delivering boats. Today, as I write, Oct. 27, he set off in the first vessel, a Jenneau 45, from Annapolis, Md. He is headed for Tortola, a distance of -- he said before casting off -- "about a thousand nautical miles."
Another unexpected passage: The nightclub Chaos just reopened in New York at 225 East Houston. This had once been Jasper Johns' studio, but was abandoned by the artist after one of his intimates was murdered in the street.
"What's been going on here recently?" we asked at the opening.
Somebody said something. Over the racket it sounded like "a golf club".
"On East Houston? A golf club?"
"Goth club", she said, impatiently.
Pity. Goths are fairly mundane presences in the East Village but golfers -- now that would have been something to see!
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Talking With Two Fetishists: And, yes, this is a compliment. Fetish artists make art that isn't about art but fetish artists don't have the naïveté -- real or pretended -- of Outsider artists. Also, fetish artists are as obsessed with what they do with their hands as by what's going on in their heads.
Herewith bits and pieces from two Q & As, with Peggy Preheim and Joe Coleman.
Peggy Preheim, first. Preheim has a show of minute drawings up at Works On Paper in Los Angeles. Preheim was born in a small town in South Dakota. The entire town, her parents included, belonged to one of the strictest of Christian sects, the Mennonites. Her drawings are based on Victorian photographs she has collected. They are utterly compelling.
Anthony Haden-Guest: How long do the drawings take to make?
Peggy Preheim: From a few days for the very tiny things to a couple of months.
AHG: What pencil do you work with?
PP: It's a number 2. A 2B. I use at least a couple on each drawing. I sharpen many different pencils. I work with eight of them at once.
AHG: How much did your upbringing effect your work -- if at all?
PP: I imagine there's a connection. The black and the white. But my memories are very dim.
AHG: And some of the memories are not so great?
PP: My grandfather was the mayor of this town. My mother got pregnant when she was 16, before she was married. They had to go in front of the church and beg for forgiveness. It was a very demeaning experience. Eventually they left town. But I was more conscious of it years ago. I feel much more free from all that.
On to Joe Coleman. I first met Coleman years ago after a performance during which he thumped a naked young woman in her privates, exploded a great many firecrackers taped to his chest, and bit the heads off several white rats. I later learned that his drawings and paintings -- many of which are now in a retrospective at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut -- are every bit as disturbing as anything he could do onstage. This Q&A took place in his Brooklyn studio.
Anthony Haden-Guest: What was the first art you made?
Joe Coleman: My mother used to take me to St Mary's Church, and I was fascinated by the Stations of the Cross that were done in relief. I started drawing them. I must have been eight years old. I drew them with a pencil and colored the blood in with a red crayon. I still have some of those. The first recognition I got was for a painting of garbage when I was in third grade and my teacher had it in this children's art show that was in City Hall. At that time Lady Bird Johnson was sponsoring this beautify America campaign, and she saw this painting as an indictment against litter. It was in all the papers. But I did it because I was just fascinated by the litter. It's similar to what I'm still doing.
AHG: Did you go to art school?
JC: I went to the School of Visual Arts. That was a bad experience. This was in the early '70s and they were doing Minimalism. All these white canvases. They said what I was doing was not art. It was illustration. I was doing much like I'm doing now. There was a review committee that would meet every semester to decide if you were developing artistically or not. These three so-called artists said what I was doing was fascist and schizophrenic. If it was true, what's it have to do with art anyway?
AHG: What were your influences?
JC: Aside from the religious influences, stuff that influenced me a lot was monster models, Mars Attacks Earth, bubblegum cards, the comicbooks Creepy and Eerie, which were drawn by the same guys that had done EC Comics. And sideshow culture. You know, geeks.
AHG: How do you feel when you're described as an Outsider artist?
JC: It's condescending, the way the art community means it. There are some great works that are called Outsider Art and may truly fit into that category but there's a lot of just like tires and tins, glued together by some tramp. And they say, well, he had shock treatments. And he's a drug addict. And they are selling it with the story. It doesn't matter what the art is. It's more about how they can sell it.
AHG: Which was your favorite Performance piece?
JC: The most well-known one was at the Kitchen. There was this event for polysexuality. It was in the old Kitchen on Houston Street. This was 1980. The woman that was running it, I told her I was going to have papier-mache penises and vaginas, and she said, oh, yeah, that sounds very subversive. We like that! It sounds great. But I had no intention of doing that. So I had these boxes of frogs, and crickets, and mice, and I had a shotgun. I'm on the elevator. She gets on the elevator too. She starts hearing (Coleman made scratching sounds). She's looking at the box, and she's looking at me. I say, oh, it must be some of the papier-mache coming loose in here!
So I get up there and Kathy Acker was reading poetry when it came time for me to perform with my ex-wife of the time -- you remember Nancy? -- she was rigged with explosives in the audience. And I was rigged with explosives on the stage. I came out and did this rant for a few minutes. And then she started exploding in the audience, and then I started exploding on the stage and we ran into each other like comets, and clashed in this mating ritual, and rolled off behind the stage. And I came out with these boxes and I just started throwing the crickets and the frogs into the audience, and then I took the box of the mice, and I poured them over my head they were crawling around on my head, my chest is all exploded now, there's smoke coming out, my face is black.
I picked up the shotgun in one hand and I was grabbing the mice. I was biting their heads off and chucking them into the audience. Everyone in the audience, their jaw just drops. Then I pull up the shotgun, and I cocked it, and I pointed it at the audience, and I said, "I think it's time to leave!"
It was like Moses parting the Red Sea. They just went. Whoosh! They're like falling over each other, and it's total chaos. As they're like running out, they're leaving like pocketbooks and stuff. And I knew I wasn't going to get paid that night so I started going through the pocketbooks and taking the money. And out of the corner of my eye I saw the woman that hired me. She's up against the wall and she's all freaked out. So I walked over to her with the shotgun and I put it up to her head and I said: So! How did you like the show?
She said (Coleman mimicked a high-pitched squeak), "It was a good show! I liked it!"
I said, "I knew you'd like it."
AHG: Concering the interplay between art and rock, was this after or before Ozzy Osborne bit the head off a bat?
JC: For one thing I'm not sure if he really did that. But it's probably around the same time.
AHG: Were you making paintings and drawings at the time?
JC: I was doing comics. The first work of mine that was published was in the underground comic Bizarre Sex. It was in number five. Crumb was in that. Also I had self-published a comic-book novel. That's the earliest piece that's just mine. I was making a living driving a cab. My first gallery show was at Chronicide. It was right off of 10th on Avenue B.
AHG: Did you feel at home in the East Village art world?
JC: No. The East Village was primarily known for these intentionally primitive painters. They would make these crude drawings that looked like they were untrained, even though they have very much knowledge of what they were doing, and to me that was very condescending.
AHG: Where does your anger come from? It seems there's a lot of personal stuff there.
JC: My parents helped create who I am. My father was a veteran of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. He was in the Marine Corps. That was the best time of his life because he could never hold down a job after that. He was a really angry alcoholic, who actually had ambitions to paint. He made paintings of lighthouses and the standard things you see in art fairs. He did them well. He was abusive to the family. My mother was this really beautiful woman who wanted to be an actress. I think she could have been. She was very sexual. Too sexual with me as well. There was excitement and terror always going on.
AHG: You use this very specific physical imagery. Intestines, and such.
JC: Yeah. There's been a lot of cancer in the family. My father had skin cancer. He had growths. He would have them cut off and there would be a hole.
AHG: You don't have one regular gallery?
JC: I have collectors. Galleries have to borrow works to make a show and they buy a couple from me in advance to resell. They all have to wait in line. There's a waiting list of people trying to get them right now. So I look on them as patrons, instead of like dealers. It's mostly word of mouth. Because for a long time no gallery would show my work.
AHG: You once told me you never know what you're going to be painting before you actually start?
JC: I have no idea. And I can start anywhere. In this case (a big painting with P.T. Barnum in the middle) I started out on the left side. I started out with Tom Thumb and I just kept going until I had filled up the entire piece of wood. Then I start working on the frame.
AHG: Did you have any self-doubt? That maybe you were just an illustrator -- as they told you at SVA?
JC: When I heard that I thought okay, I'm not making art. But whatever I am making, I have to make it. I can't stop making it.