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My cat could beat up your dog: Norman Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighborhood.
© 1967, Illustration for Look, licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL

By Way of Illustration
B
y David Brickman

Hometown Hero,
Citizen of the World:
Rockwell in Stockbridge

Norman Rockwell Museum, through Oct. 31

I have a confession to make: I really like Norman Rockwell. Do I rank him among the great artists of the 20th century (as some would want)? Not at all. But, if there is an exhibition that could convince you to consider that maybe, just maybe, Rockwell was more than a mere illustrator, it’s Hometown Hero, Citizen of the World: Rockwell in Stockbridge, the last in a three-part series on the artist at the museum that bears his name.

Rockwell was born in 1894, and by 1916 was painting covers for The Saturday Evening Post, and he remained at the top of this very competitive profession until his death at 84. Along the way, he witnessed unheard-of upheaval in the arts, in technology and in society—and much of this is present in the work shown here (all dated 1953 or later).

But Rockwell’s social consciousness was late in coming to the surface. For a long time, if he wanted to make a living, he had to do what art directors told him to do: including working for decades within a very narrow palette, depicting a saccharine-sweet world that was years out of phase with reality, and even eliminating black people from his images if they were not in servant roles.

The awakening came after Rockwell’s wife suddenly died in 1959. Out of his subsequent depression came a growing desire to say not just what art directors and the (adoring) public wanted, but what was on his mind. By 1961, when Rockwell got married again to a woman “resolute and vocal in her liberal politics,” he was ready to begin pushing the envelope.

At first, he simply updated his subject matter; rather than the treacly, nostalgic (yet also often hilarious) genre scenes that had become his stock-in-trade, he began depicting a new America, that of the corporate office, the suburb, the space age—retaining his tendency to use humor, but getting much more realistic. Equally important, he injected shades of his own yearning into some of this work; for example, 1959’s Easter Morning depicts a prim and properly dressed family filing out to go to church—while Dad slumps down in his ’50s modern chair in pajamas and robe, reading the newspaper, smoking a cigarette and sporting hair slyly tousled into little devil’s horns.

A painting from a year later, Window Washer, goes a step further. While Rockwell had always had a sharp eye for a cute female, here he presents a ravishing redheaded secretary perched on an office chair as she takes dictation from a businesslike executive; her high-necked dress is unbuttoned down to cleavage level and she looks up wistfully, just in time to catch the confident wink of a strapping fellow who’s cleaning the huge window behind them. This addition of open sexuality to a Post cover, while understated, represented Rockwell’s need to move on, and he soon did, to the more topical McCall’s and Look magazines.

The transition coincided with social upheaval on a grand scale, as the civil-rights movement began to heat up and, later, opposition to the war in Vietnam reached fever pitch. Paintings made in the years 1963-1968, many of them on commission for Look, reflect these struggles vividly, sensitively and angrily.

One of the most important, The Problem We All Live With, shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by U.S. marshals, as she bravely integrates a Southern school for the first time, in 1960 (the painting, made several years later, uses a local Stockbridge resident to represent Bridges). Taking the child’s perspective, Rockwell crops out the heads and parts of the feet of the gray-suited adults; on a wall behind, directly above the white-clad innocent’s head, the word “NIGGER” has been scrawled, and a freshly tossed tomato has slid down next to it, splattering blood red into the almost monochromatic scene. What might surprise the many of us who have seen this image reproduced is that the painting is quite large—about 3 feet by 5 feet—and the skill employed in painting it is of the utmost level.

The same is true of another integration-themed painting from 1967. Harking back to the old Rockwell of puppies and kids in cute poses, New Kids in the Neighborhood nevertheless hits a raw nerve, as the well-established preteen crew (two whites and a slightly swarthy boy) stop to check out the black brother and sister just moving in to a neighborhood of trim lawns and raised ranches. Though white flight had barely begun, here they were already, complete with genteel furnishings and a big, fluffy cat to boot.

Say what you will about the pointedness of the message and the straightforwardness of Rockwell’s style, the painting is compositionally perfect, stunningly well-crafted and remains (unfortunately, from the social standpoint) totally relevant today. When so many of our flash-in-the-pan, socially conscious artists are long forgotten, a picture such as this one could live on to tell future generations what the America of the ’60s could be like, much as genre paintings of past centuries do for us now. And I believe Rockwell looked to those paintings as a source of inspiration.

Even so, Rockwell poses a problem, in that the work of providing such representation passed along more than a century ago to photography—famously freeing up painting to travel the crazy path it then did. And it seems he knew that, too, but simply couldn’t step out of his role as old-
fashioned, wry observer in order to try to break new ground as a real 20th-century artist.

Perhaps the most telling painting here (which, like many pieces in this display, is on loan from a private collection, i.e., not likely to be seen again) is the truly wonderful 1962 Connoisseur, in which Rockwell sends up abstract expressionism by depicting from the rear a gray-haired, umbrella toting gentleman as he peruses a huge, garishly colored splatter-and-drip painting. The faux-Pollock totally dominates the image, dwarfing the viewer as he stands, hands clasped behind his back, revealing not a clue as to what he thinks of it. And so, we are left to decide for ourselves what we think of it, too.

The big inside joke, of course, is that Rockwell himself also painted the “Pollock”—and it’s pretty damn good. So good, in fact, that (as we learn from the curator’s notes) a fragment of the original upon which it is based (Rockwell made the drip painting full-scale, then copied it splash by splatter into the much smaller illustration painting) won first prize when entered into a show at the Cooperstown Art Association under an Italian pseudonym. Better yet, another fragment that also won honors at the Berkshire Museum (this one signed “Percival,” a misspelling of Rockwell’s middle name) is hanging next to Connoisseur in this installation—a wonderful tidbit.

Other treats abound in the show: most prominently, several watercolors and oil sketches made on holiday that are among the few paintings Rockwell seems ever to have made just for himself, and a room dedicated to the production of one great illustrative painting on the Mississippi murder of three civil-rights activists in 1964. Along with the big, final Murder in Mississippi painting (and the small oil sketch that ended up being published in its stead), there are sketches, reference photos, research materials (clippings and tearsheets), handwritten notes and pictures of the painting in different states, making for a marvelously instructive mini-exhibition on Rockwell’s process.

So, did he ever transcend his calling as illustrator? In the end, no one knew better than Rockwell himself that the answer to that question is no. But did he ennoble this calling? Absolutely.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Sculpture Now: In and By the River
The Norman Rockwell Museum grounds, through Oct. 31

Sculpture Now has placed 20-some pieces in site-specific installations that provide the perfect excuse to take an easy walk in a beautiful setting; they also present a reasonably savvy cross-section of the many styles and approaches to be found in contemporary sculpture.

This year’s exhibition plays on the site’s position along the lovely but seriously polluted Housatonic River. Some of the artists make the most of the opportunity either conceptually or physically—and a couple manage to do both—while others offer works that simply look good in the space without really engaging the theme.

Kim Radochia’s swirly, shiny Rip Rap and Lucy Hodgson’s shingled, serpentine River’s Revenge are two strong, formal pieces that reflect the forms of water in different ways, but are placed in mown-out spaces in the field well away from the river itself.

The best works in this show exploit the possibility of a man-made piece of art interacting with uncontrolled nature. Among those are Helen Suter’s glimmer of wind-catching metal titled A Stitch in Time (Saves Nine), Robin Tosts’s witty and inventive Invasive Species and Gunnar Theel’s Ampersand. The latter places a red-painted steel tube construction based on the quintessential kid’s drawing of a house among live saplings that penetrate and fill the cube’s spaces with graceful lines.

Other works get political with (predictably) mixed results. Perhaps the best of these is Ann Jon’s The Fish That Cried Its Eyes Out, which is suspended above the river from a cable and can be viewed from a nearby foot bridge—or, if you’re lucky, from a boat on the water.

—David Brickman


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