Rockwell rides a wave of patriotism

The artist's comforting vision is now on display at the Guggenheim, an unsettling turn of events.

Art

January 27, 2002|By Jason Edward Kaufman | Jason Edward Kaufman,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK -- Long before Sept. 11 got Americans thinking about the values that unite us, an exhibition of artist-illustrator Norman Rockwell was striking a patriotic chord with museumgoers around the country. The show is at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until March 3, last stop on a two-year tour.

Rockwell (1894-1978) is the perfect painter for difficult times. Why? For one thing, times are never too difficult in his paintings. You know the Saturday Evening Post covers. They conjure up an idealized, anodyne portrait of small-town America as the sort of place where friendly cops eat apple pie in soda shops, family doctors make house calls and teachers wind up with apples on their desks. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, this vision of national harmony is reassuring, a security blanket of normalcy and united identity.

Ad-man par excellence, Rockwell pitched not only Coke, Crest and Kellogg's, but also the American way itself. The government hired him to make recruiting posters for the armed forces, and on his own he created wartime classics like Rosie the Riveter, which helped legitimize women entering the labor force at home, and The Four Freedoms, about which more in a moment.

The retrospective includes these and scores of other paintings and drawings, as well as all 322 of the magazine covers.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krens says he's "pleased to present this comprehensive exhibition in New York City during such a difficult moment in U.S. history," and adds, "I hope visitors will find comfort and inspiration in Rockwell's nostalgic images of American life."

And of course we do. After all, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 for his "vivid and affectionate portraits of our country." His characters and settings are familiar, their moralizing messages easily understandable, and his easy-to-read realism itself was easily admired for the apparent ease of its skillful execution.

So, here is Norman Rockwell, reassuring New Yorkers and Americans everywhere that the country and its values are strong and enduring. And he's doing it not on magazine covers, but in an art museum. He would have loved this.

All his life he wanted to be regarded as a serious artist, but he liked the money in commercial art and took every assignment he could, even if it meant missing deadlines. He became perhaps the most famous artist in America, but his common-man style was the antithesis of modern art, and for decades the arbiters of taste denigrated Rockwell's eye candy as pure fluff.

For about a decade, however, Rockwell's fallen star has been rising. The key event was the 1993 christening of a new Norman Rockwell Museum building in his native Stockbridge, Mass. -- an event trumpeted with the usual hullabaloo orchestrated by a well-paid New York City publicity firm.

'Just show it'

Until very recently, any art insider would have found the notion of the Guggenheim playing host to a Rockwell show laughable and absurd. Founded as the Museum of Non-Objective Art, the museum promoted abstract art -- art that depicts no object -- and opposed everything Rockwell stood for. Think of the astoundingly anti-conventional Frank Lloyd Wright spiral on Fifth Avenue and you get a sense of the museum's radicalism.

In the 1990s, director Krens began an about-face, refashioning the highbrow Guggenheim into a demotic business bent on global expansion, marketing and brand-name recognition, and willing to put anything into its galleries that would draw funding and visitors -- from African and Chinese art to motorcycles and Armani dresses. With branches -- some call them "McGuggenheims" -- in Venice, Berlin, Las Vegas and most notably Bilbao, and others planned for Brazil, the multinational empire has become the Nike of the museum world: "Just show it."

This is not the place to analyze the Guggenheim's transformation -- the museum has run into financial trouble since Sept. 11, laying off 20 percent of its staff -- but only to note that the juggernaut thrives on crowds and controversy, and in this context Rockwell fits right in. Critics would attack the museum for pandering to popular taste and abandoning its founder's principles, but visitors would flock to see the popular Rockwell. It was a win-win situation, so the Guggenheim sold its soul and signed onto the exhibition tour, and in so doing ratcheted up Rockwell's reputation and legitimized a show other museums might have regarded as a dangerously kitschy gamble.

Rockwell had already enjoyed a warm critical reception by the time the retrospective rolled into New York. And Sept. 11 only heightened its relevance. The museum managed to move up the show two weeks to capitalize on the flag-waving aspect, as if to serve the needs of its bruised public. Here was the old-time patriot, perfectly timed to rally the masses 'round the flag in battle-weary Manhattan.

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