Sunday, April 10, 2011

Norman American Rockwell

Triple Self-Portrait/ © The Norman Rockwell Estate
Yesterday I took the day off and went to the Tacoma Art Museum for an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's art. It required a little side street negotiation, because the main drag was occupied by the Daffodil Festival Parade. In other news, Tacoma has a Daffodil Festival Parade, which is actually four parades in four towns (Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner, and Oorting) which results in marching bands bundling onto school buses and daffodil-covered floats engaged in high-speed chases. Or so I imagine. The end result a Saturday morning in a museum surprisingly light in traffic.

The Tacoma Art Museum is a small operation up the hill from the Museum of Glass (Museum of Glass + Earthquake Zone = Momento Mori). The floor plan is like an angular letter "p", with the counter (hole) in the letter consisting of bowl-shaped, tiled, mirrored interior court, which, in the modern style is titled, "Untitled", but everyone apparently calls "The Wave". The area surrounding "The Wave" are a series of small galleries. I don't know if they have a permanent collection, though they did have a gallery dedicated to Chihuly (because an entire museum dedicated to glass a half-mile away was obviously not enough).

Anyway, Norman Rockwell. America's best-known painter and illustrator, but still, after all these years, is still pushing against the wall of being called a true Artist-with-a-capital-A. Which is a pity, because he obviously is a Great American Artist to all but the most blinkered of academics. But I think this is because of his artistic strengths, his background, his subject matter, and his longevity.

Rockwell was a master technician and portraitist in a world that went non-representational in his lifetime. His ability to imbue emotions into the human face and body and to add depth, is as legendary as it is obvious.He could make Bob Hope look creepy and Dick Nixon look wise. He was direct in his goals - there is little wondering what the artist was trying to say here. He told stories in his work, pure and simple, refining the moment to single image. And I think denying the puzzle to the critics reduces his charm to them.

His background also rankles the movers and shakers of big-A Art. He was an illustrator by trade and training, a common craftsman who toiled for mere compensation to a deadline and an art order, as opposed to garret-starved wretch who wrests deeper truths from a patron or gallery system. He belongs to a mighty heritage that gets tarred with the small-a brush. Lautrec, Parrish, and Mucha were antecedents in this tradition. In the fantasy of the 80s we have Elmore, Easley, and Parkinson. And currently I have had the pleasure of working with the new generation -  Dociu, Kotaki, and Anderson. I am not going to deny to any them that they are doing Art. The same goes for Rockwell himself.

Rockwell's subject matter was very American, in particular its virtues. That made him a patriotic comfort food, his work suitable to grace the end table, the school room, and the phone book cover. He belonged to the small town America where he painted, recruiting his neighbors as models. And he seemed to have an inherent niceness about him, and it is hard not to conflate him with Mister Rogers in his grounded, positive nature. He apparently could not "paint angry" and in the exhibit, you can see his rawer emotions for "A Murder in Mississippi" get refined and crafted to the point that the magazine used a color study instead of the final work.

The Problem We All Live With/ Detroit Institute of Arts
His work has become iconic, and in taking on that iconic nature, makes itself the establishment to play against. He has been equated with the nostalgic, and with it the conservative. Yet once he moved from the more stodgy Saturday Evening Post to the more liberal Look, he unleashed a deep multiculturalism that was part and parcel of the struggles of the '60s. He was probably the only artist in America who could scrawl a racial epithet in the background "The Problem We All Live With" and have it published nationwide. He was like the original Star Trek - quaint now, but for the time radical and on the front lines.

His career spanned from the 20's to the 70s, and consisted of him breaking out of boxes into bigger boxes. He started with Boy's Life, and was labeled as a children's artist, then moved into the well-known Post gig where he defined the genre to a great degree. Casting loose from the Post, he moved into a New England Progressiveness that has been diminished as the more liberal arts cede the past to its more conservative brethren. Rockwell's America is an active verb, moving forward, doing things, and encountering life.

Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ/Detroit Institute of Arts
The sum total of the criticism reflects more badly on his critics than on his art. To say his work is old-fashioned, or too realistic, or too American is to admit that modern art has no place in its galleries for such things, and the big tent shrinks. Yet to dismiss his work as mere craft is to do the artist, and all art, a disservice. His "Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ" holds more emotional tonnage than Picasso's "Massacre in Korea"

You should go see this exhibit. It runs until the end of May, and may be one of the PNW's best kept art secrets. Yes, you should get yourself down to Tacoma (time does NOT pass slower there - it's just the way they time their traffic lights) and see it. There is something deeper and more meaningful in seeing the texture of this original art as opposed to a high gloss artbook or on a screen. Or on the cover of Saturday Evening Post.

More later,