Middle Americana

The problem is, Rockwell is no longer in need of rescuing. Overstating his case only isolates him once again. He wanted "to become a household name," and he has. Nowadays, Rockwell is seen not as a pariah, but as a major talent at one end of the spectrum. He has long since ceased to be a highbrow bugaboo. Even Clement Greenberg—who lambasted the Post covers in the first sentence of "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"—could allow that "it's entirely possible to like a Rockwell more than a Raphael." Many of Rockwell's illustrations can turn you into a quivering ball of mush. In that category here are Day in the Life of a Young Girl (1952), Marriage License (1955), The Runaway (1958), Coming and Going (1947), and After the Prom (1957). Nonetheless, I doubt even his most ardent supporter would rather live with the best Rockwell than a middling Raphael.

"I never painted pictures to be seen": Rockwell's Guggenheim installation, Girl at Mirror (1954) at right.
photo: Robin Holland
"I never painted pictures to be seen": Rockwell's Guggenheim installation, Girl at Mirror (1954) at right.

Details

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through March 3, 2002

Much is made of Rockwell's popularity, "virtue," and ability to create a world. But Rockwell's world is cardboard compared to someone like Brueghel's, whose drawings, currently on view at the Met, provide a real journey into the imagination. As for populism, an exhibition devoted to The Simpsons would be less sentimental, more visual, and have twice the virtue of this affair. And an empty room with piped-in music by Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson—both Rockwell's contemporaries—would take you deeper and tell you more about America than this show.

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