Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim, for the Shallow and Jug-Stupid

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In 1949, the writer Russell Lynes suggested in the pages of Harper's that American culture was divided along lines of taste rather than class. "It isn't wealth or family that makes prestige these days," he said, giving voice to the usual surge of postwar American egalitarianism. "It's high thinking." Famously titled "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," the subject of Lynes' article was picked up by the editors of Life magazine and digested into a chart-like photograph for its readers. Featuring three classes of men standing in front of three types of pictures, the illustration placed one man, a relaxed, highbrow type in a Brooks Brothers suit, before a Picasso portrait. The second, a stocky, blue-collar type, stared up at a saucy calendar pinup. The third, the image of the anxious American middlebrow, was made to stand, stiff-necked as a chicken, before that great icon of humorless, corny Middle American virtue: Grant Wood's American Gothic. Truth is, he might just as well have been looking at a painting by Norman Rockwell.

"I have always wanted everybody to like my work," Rockwell told his son Tom in his aptly titled autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, "I could never be satisfied with just the approval of the critics (and boy, I've certainly had to be satisfied without it) or a small group of kindred souls. So I have painted pictures that didn't disturb anybody, that I knew everyone would understand and like." Everyone, that is?as Rockwell painfully acknowledged?except an American arts establishment weaned on vanguardism, innovation and a medullar opposition to mass culture.

Born in a shabby-Caucasian corner of New York to troubled, distant parents, Rockwell witnessed the fleeting image of impressionism from the picture window of Manhattan museums, came of age during the golden age of Picasso and cubism, observed futurism, dada and surrealism from afar, enjoyed brand-name fame during the rise of abstract expressionism and ended a 47-year career at The Saturday Evening Post precisely as pop and minimalism ushered in four more decades of difficult, elitist art.

Working through nothing less than the birth and development of modernism, it might be reasonable to expect Rockwell to have shared, however reluctantly, in the era's excitement. He was, instead, after a few failed efforts and a trip to Paris, stubbornly impervious. Rockwell was an artist of meager imagination and limited talent who gained popular renown by unstintingly providing postwar Americans with exactly the kind of entertainment they wanted?a creative vision just shallow and jug-stupid enough to meet the age's groundswell of unchecked commercialism on its own terms.

Rockwell, the Rembrandt of Punkin Crick, as Robert Hughes memorably dubbed him, was arguably the most famous of a century of American print illustrators that includes folks as varied as Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington, Playboy's Varga and others who have over the years churned out memorable commercial images, like Joe Camel and the Coppertone Girl. A born ad man if ever there was one, Rockwell's fame was inseparable from the phenomenon of mechanical reproduction; his work, in fact, depended on it, as it was never really intended to be seen in the flesh. Rockwell shilled for more than 150 companies in his lifetime, from Jell-O to, quite fittingly, Hallmark Cards, helping to kick off mass culture as we know it in the form of large-scale color magazine illustrations.

But his biggest client appears to have been the U.S. government, for whom he stumped uncritically until nearly the end of his career, and for whom he worked mostly for free, except in the case of truly laughable chestnuts like the Four Freedoms, published by the Office of War Information?"The War That Refreshes: The Four Delicious Freedoms," was how it was mocked by Francis Brennan, the head of the wartime graphics bureau. Rockwell made of his 317 covers for The Saturday Evening Post heartwarming, sentimental propaganda for an impossibly counterfeit American Arcadia.

As robust as anything filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, but putting on a happy face, Rockwell's pictures were the perfect illustration of the dangerously triumphalist ideology of American exceptionalism, with full emphasis placed on the wholesome and the waspy. Made up of vignettes from the sort of guileless American pastorale Rockwell cherished but never lived, his cartoonily exaggerated paintings of "Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand," etc., entered the consciousness of viewers like retinal cotton candy, demanding no real thinking and only a dumb smile in return.

The private life of Norman Normal, though, was another, far more ordinary affair. Depressed by the nagging suspicion of empty success, Rockwell sought and underwent psychotherapy. His first marriage ended in divorce. A second wife was hospitalized for alcoholism. In the end, even Rockwell saw the gaping maw that opened up between real life and what one might call the short, happy life of a winning ideology. "I really believed," he said in 1970, "that the war against Hitler would bring the Four Freedoms to everyone. But I couldn't paint that today. I just don't believe it. I was doing this best-possible-world, Santa-down-the-chimney, lovely-kids-adoring-their-kindly-grandpa-sort-of-thing. And I liked it, but now I'm sick of it."

In the end, not even Rockwell himself could stand the banality, mawkishness and corrosive fiction built into his visual narratives. So what, one might ask, is the Guggenheim doing today hosting a retrospective of almost 400 of his works? The show, certainly, is not much to look at. The paintings are flat, coarsely compressed and have no surface to speak of (they were, after all, designed to be pictures, not paintings). Accompanied by a catalog penned by well-known writers who incredibly call Rockwell "an American master" and bald-facedly compare his work favorably with that of Vermeer, Daumier, Hals, Rubens and Michelangelo, it is possible to hazard a guess.

Smelling the opportunity to achieve a bit of tasty and elusive critical eclat, figures like the plainly blithering Thomas Hoving ("Rockwell didn't sugarcoat" and was "never hokey or saccharine"), cagey Robert Rosenblum ("If it had already become respectable to scrutinize and admire... Victorian genre paintings, why couldn't the same standards apply here?") and ubiquitous baby boomer Dave Hickey (Rockwell is "the last great poet of American childhood, the Vermeer of this nation's domestic history") dusted off their air cannons and let go with warm salvos that might buoy up the Dow but not Rockwell's deservedly miserable reputation. These critics, Typhoid Marys of the revisionist epidemic, arrived at the coat-changing party too late, missing the 20th century's last bogus intellectual strategy by almost two years.

Miss this show and ignore the catalog. Rarely have the ambitions of a museum, an artist and his critical supporters ever resulted in such a transparently opportunistic fiasco.

"Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," through March 3, 2002, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave. (89th St.), 423-3500.

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