Rethinking Rockwell

A popular magazine illustrator is winning new respect from museums and critics

Norman Rockwell exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum! It sounds so crazy," says art historian Robert Rosenblum.

His statement reflects the art establishment's bewilderment that Rockwell (1894-1978), a painter often thought of as a corny, sentimental illustrator of magazine covers, is about to be exhibited at a number of high-brow art institutions that tend to ally themselves more with cutting-edge contemporary art than Rockwell's nostalgic, idealized images of small-town America.

So why this exhibition - and why now?

"This is an extremely [economically] feasible show," says Peter Plaegens, an art critic for Newsweek magazine. "People will come in droves, and the museums that take Rockwell will sell a lot of tickets, as well as a lot of T-shirts, posters, and other collateral items.

"There is a built-in hipness about liking Rockwell. It goes against the orthodoxy of Modernism. You see people slicking their hair back into pompadours; it's all very retro," Mr. Plaegens says.

The traveling exhibition, "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," will debut at Atlanta's High Museum Nov. 6 and make its final stop at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001.

The seven-city tour also includes Chicago, Washington, San Diego, Phoenix, and Stockbridge, Mass. This is the first retrospective of Rockwell since a 1972 exhibition sponsored by the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Museum of Art. That show received reviews that ranged from lukewarm to thumbs-down.

Ironically, it was an art critic who got the ball rolling. "I think it was three years ago, I happened to stumble into Stockbridge, Mass., and went to the Rockwell museum," Mr. Rosenblum says. "I was totally riveted by the paintings. He struck me as a fabulously interesting artist, who really knew how to put a picture together."

Both Plaegens and Rosenblum have said that the experience of looking at Rockwell's actual paintings, rather than at reproductions of them, made them more sympathetic to the artist. Rosenblum then recommended the idea of a touring retrospective to Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim.

The result of his efforts is a sizable retrospective, consisting of 70 original oil paintings. The most famous are "The Four Freedoms" ("Freedom of Speech," "Freedom to Worship," "Freedom From Want," "Freedom From Fear), "Triple Self-Portrait," "The Marriage License," and "Shuffleton's Barbershop." Also included are all 322 of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. The works cover 60 years of his career and date back to 1916.

Collectors cash in

Though art critics might have been slow to catch on, the market for Rockwells and illustration art in general has been expanding steadily with rising prices. Judy Goffman, an illustration art dealer, says that auction houses are now wooing the owners of Rockwells, creating a competition with the private dealers who traditionally have handled the sale of these works. "Whenever a Rockwell comes up for sale now, the owners all tell me what Christie's and Sotheby's say they can get for it," Ms. Goffman says.

Because Rockwell made numerous preliminary drawings, there may be different prices for oil sketches, watercolors, and pastels - all for the same image. Rockwell's full-size paintings have exceeded half a million dollars at some auctions.

Plaegens said that it is time for "a reevaluation, or maybe just an evaluation, of Rockwell" by an art world that has long dismissed him.

Some of that reevaluation has begun in academia, says Anne Knutson, guest curator at the High Museum. She wrote her dissertation on illustration and World War I propaganda.

"You see a lot of interest in illustration art coming out of American studies programs [in universities]," she says, "and from art history departments. In the last 10 years, illustration has become a very hot topic. Rockwell is being interpreted as chronicling cultural values and mores."

Ms. Knutson adds that the show makes connections between Rockwell's images and mass media, such as the types of characters found in the films of Frank Capra and the formulas used in TV situation comedies like "The Brady Bunch."

Not everyone views this approach to Rockwell favorably. Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, rejects the American studies approach to art, in which "everything is social science, and aesthetics doesn't count for anything anymore. That kind of show they can put in a history museum, not in an art museum. If they're going to praise Rockwell as an artist, we're really in the last stages of this burlesque, the overpraise of pop art."

Others disagree, arguing that Rockwell's skills have been underrated. Scott Atkinson, curator of American art at the San Diego Museum of Art, where the retrospective will travel, views him as "a very fine draftsman. He can draw like nobody's business."

Dave Hickey, a critic who wrote one of the essays in the Rockwell retrospective catalog (with the hip title "The Kids Are Alright"), notes that Rockwell's artistry is "in the tradition of European picture-making, and he fits classically into traditional American art, from [Frederick] Church to [Edward] Hopper to [Andy] Warhol, [Tom] Wesselmann, [Jasper] Johns, and [Robert] Rauschenberg."

A number of critics say that a Rockwell show is critic-proof, because no one who goes to it is going to care what any critic says about it

"Our visitors love Rockwell," says Laurie Norton Moffat, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. "For them, it is fine art. There's a message in it, and they get it right away."

The public's embrace of Rockwell might have a spillover effect into the world of art criticism. "No one is going to be totally uncool and pan it," says New York Times art critic Holland Cotter.

Critic Hickey says that "the show is ... going to receive some positive responses, because for most critics it won't help your career to bash Rockwell." In other words, many critics like to be contrary, certainly not predictable or, heaven forbid, out of step.

Drawing a different crowd

The retrospective is expected to bring in people who never go to museums. It may even be a harbinger of the exhibitions that museums will stage in the 21st century, in which the focus is on cultural icons and what they indicate about American desires and beliefs. At present, none of the museums scheduled to display this show are developing exhibitions of the works of other American illustrators.

But "Rockwell is certainly opening the door," Rosenblum says. "It's going to be interesting to see what comes in next."

*'Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People,' is organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. It opens at the High Museum Nov. 6 through Jan. 30, then travels to the Chicago Historical Society, Feb. 26 to May 21; The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, June 17 to Sept. 24; the San Diego Museum of Art, Oct. 28 to Dec. 31; the Phoenix Art Museum, Feb. 24 to May 6, 2001; The Norman Rockwell Museum, June 9 to Oct. 8, 2001; and the Guggenheim in New York, Nov. 7, 2001 to Feb. 11, 2002.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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