When it comes to the claims being made for Norman Rockwell, my advice is just say no. A cadre of museum directors, curators, national critics, art historians, and suddenly populist art theorists want you to love him. Rockwell is a postmodern fad. He’s hip. He’s also a big moneymaker and crowd pleaser, an everyman artist everyone can understand. He gives good box office where museums are concerned (over a million people have seen the current traveling retrospective); lends street (or it is suburban?) cred to those who don’t want to seem snobbish; and revs up hucksters like Thomas Hoving, who spouts gibberish in the catalog about the cooling of “the obsession for abstraction.” In addition to Hoving, 14 essayists—including perennial champions of the overlooked, Dave Hickey and Robert Rosenblum—tell us what we already know: that it’s OK to like Rockwell.
A paradoxical $50 million-a-year-in-licensing-fees underdog, Rockwell is turned into a cause, loved the way people love the Mets, and discussed like he was an artistic Benjamin Franklin. In the catalog, Rockwell is deemed “an American master,” “a gift to the nation,” and a dispenser of “universal truths.” We are reminded that Ross Perot and Steven Spielberg collect his work. Self-interest and defensiveness are evident. Thomas Krens opines that Rockwell’s “nostalgic images of American life” might “offer comfort and inspiration . . . during such a difficult moment in U.S. history.” Peter Rockwell, Norman’s son, conjectures that “opposition to my father’s work in critical circles” is due to “its rejection of criticism’s raison d’être.” Ned Rifkin, director of Atlanta’s High Museum, goes a little biblical, warning that those who “deny” Rockwell “risk” losing their “humanness.” All these people should be resisted.
The Guggenheim’s 400-plus-work Rockwell retrospective, which is making its final stop on its two-year triumphal tour of seven American museums, does not prove—as the catalog claims—that Rockwell is comparable to Vermeer, Daumier, Homer, Hogarth, Hals, Toulouse-Lautrec, or Warhol. He’s not even comparable to Georges de La Tour. Nor does it establish Rockwell as an antidote to the hermeticism surrounding some modern and contemporary art. At its best, this show proves that Rockwell is what he’s always been: a top-notch illustrator who can grab your heart and wring it. (Looking at the walls of Saturday Evening Post covers can be as addictive as playing computer solitaire.) At worst, it shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists, and only underlines Rockwell’s reputation as merely the maker of what he himself called “feel-good” “story-pictures.”
For the art world to fall for this simple vision now—especially now—is, as Flash Art American editor Massimiliano Giorni put it, “like confessing in public that deep down inside we are, after all, right-wing.” He adds, “We all like stability and the cheesy beauty of a little day in the greatest country in the world—our beloved America. But it’s simply reactionary. It scares me.” Curator Francesco Bonami goes him one better: “In terms of content, Rockwell is a disaster.” Even Rockwell might have agreed. In 1972, four years before his death at 84, he admitted, “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.”
Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity. Embracing him uncritically is the aesthetic equivalent of casual Friday. Professionals who usually spend four days a week touting blue-chippers like Kelly, Nauman, and Richter want you to know that they may look like cultural captains of industry, but inside they’re warm and fuzzy. The whole exercise comes off as a fake demonstration of down-home values—a vacant game that places nothing at risk. It reeks more than ever of complacency. To equate Rockwell with Vermeer is not to have really looked at either of their pictures.
In person, Rockwell’s paintings are pretty dead. They are mechanical, washed out, and have little space, limited color, and no surface. As artist Carroll Dunham said, “You are not in the presence of artful thought.” Instead, Rockwell exhibits a canny sense of caricature, costume, props, and narrative—what Robert Hughes calls giving “every hair of every mutt its share of picturesque completeness.” Rockwell is a picture maker, not a painter. It’s not surprising to learn that many of the companies that commissioned work from him tossed the originals once they were reproduced. His work was never meant to be seen in the flesh; it was meant for reproduction. As Rockwell said, “I never painted pictures to be seen. They were painted for a camera.”
Rockwell didn’t think like an artist, but he certainly was tormented like one. This sense of creative crisis is something many can identify with. He feared not being “good enough” and was always “terrified” that his covers for the Post would be rejected (which at 322 covers in 47 years is a lot of terror). “Am I dodging life?” he worried in his journal, and told his son, “If I could start over again, I’d paint like Picasso.” (Wouldn’t we all?) When asked if he liked being an illustrator, he snapped, “I hate it.” When ranked with his favorite artist, Rembrandt, Rockwell muttered, “I’m sure he’s turning over in his grave.” He often said, “People tell me, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I love your stuff.’ I wish they’d say the opposite, ‘I know a lot about art, and I love your stuff.’ ” It’s no wonder people want to rescue him.
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.
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.