The World Series this fall included three improbable ninth-inning comebacks, but one going on now in New York City is even more unlikely. Manhattan's artists, students, and critics are flocking to the Guggenheim Museum, a shrine to abstract art, and admiring an exhibit, 23 years after his death, of the 20th-century American painter most despised by the modern-art establishment.
"Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" has already been on national tour for almost two years, but only now, as journalists wonder whether the Sept. 11 events have changed the way we look at America, is the exhibit confronting the arts cognoscenti on their own turf. Listen to the grudging admission of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman: "Nowadays, in our flag-shrouded anxiety, the cornball sentiments ... seem less remote and contrived than they did before Sept. 11. [A Rockwell painting] can make you gulp despite yourself."
How striking is that acknowledgment? It's been 29 years since a Rockwell exhibit came within spitting range of the Times-the Brooklyn Museum had one in 1972-and at that time John Canaday, the newspaper's art critic, viciously denounced it. Mr. Canaday closed with a description of what a pleasure it was to "shoulder my way back to the [Times Square] office through the crowds of pimps, prostitutes, and perverts." The virtuous Americans Rockwell painted gave Mr. Canaday the heebie-jeebies, but Manhattan's Midnight Cowboy denizens had the right stuff.
For decades Rockwell produced the much-loved paintings that launched a thousand sneers among the lords of the painted word: To them, Rockwell was the "Rembrandt of Punkin Creek," the "prophet of mindlessness," the kitschmeister of "Gee-Gosh-Shucksism." Art critic Deborah Solomon notes that "As far as the modernists were concerned, Rockwell did everything wrong.... He was well-read, but he didn't read Sartre.... He had a vast following. He made money. He didn't wear black turtlenecks. These were all no-nos to people who defined themselves by their alienation from American life."
But what a difference several decades and a terrorist attack makes. Next Tuesday, Nov. 27, the Guggenheim has even scheduled a panel discussion titled "A Love Affair: Contemporary Artists on Norman Rockwell." The list of smitten discussants includes artists such as John Currin, painter of bizarre female nudes. Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News concluded, "It's OK to like Norman Rockwell. Really. More important, it's even OK to admit it in polite society."
Even more: Some contemporary artists see Rockwell's traditional values as cutting edge. Since insurance companies now run television commercials praising the "coming out" of homosexuals, one of the most rare and shocking things around is a committed, long-term husband-wife relationship. And what about a family Thanksgiving dinner? Weird-which means that a painter who depicts one is far out, and that's almost in.
Artists and critics are also belatedly appreciating Rockwell's emphasis on fine detail and the careful use of light; comparisons to Vermeer are now common. Rockwell's technique certainly is realistic, but those who say Rockwell's depiction of everyday life was realistic are in one sense as wrong as the disparagers of a generation ago. Rockwell painted not life around him, but an idealized life that he rarely saw.
In Norman Rockwell, a detailed biography just published by Random House, author Laura Claridge writes of Rockwell's insensitive mother, his uncle's syphilis, his "open marriage" with a first wife (and the adultery that predictably killed it), and his better second marriage that ended sadly. Rockwell and wife No. 2, Mary, had three children but aborted their fourth in 1938; she then drank heavily and received substantial psychiatric treatment until her death in 1951, at age 51. The official cause of death was heart failure, but many neighbors believed she overdosed on pills.
"Freedom from Want" (the picture of family togetherness on our cover) is famous, but Rockwell painted all the individual portraits in it separately. The realism of the turkey is actually unrealistic: Its huge size suggests at least a 30-pounder. The realism of "Freedom of Speech" is also more than meets the eye: Within it audience members reverently gaze at the speaker, but at the New England town meetings I once covered as a reporter listeners were more ready to pounce than to praise.
Rockwell (1894-1978) did not paint the life around him, but a vision of a better life. As a child he sang in an Episcopal church choir that required three rehearsals a week, a dress rehearsal on Friday, and singing at four services every Sunday. When his voice changed he became a crucifer, carrying a cross while leading the procession down the church aisle. He went through confirmation and then, perhaps having overdosed on churchiness, essentially dropped out. He became only a special-events churchgoer for the rest of his life.
The Episcopal Church even then was not paying much attention to the vertical relations of God and man. It was, though, emphasizing the horizontal relations of all God's children, and those lessons stuck with Rockwell. He painted not America but a heavenly earth where small-town lions were lying down with lambs. He depicted not life around him but life in a new Eden where failures are forgotten and bitterness banished, sly humor relished but sarcasm avoided.
Nearly 60 years ago Rockwell painted his most famous series, one requested by the U.S. government to popularize four principles emphasized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom to Worship," "Freedom from Want," and "Freedom from Fear." Rockwell was eager to do them; he wrote, "They are worth everything that I can give them and more." First seen on Saturday Evening Post covers in 1942, the New Yorker reported that "They were received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art."
That's probably because they portrayed a life that even then seemed too good to be true to Americans who had whistled through the dark of the Depression and were then just at the beginning of a war against masters of terror. "Freedom to Worship," with its lower-right-hand-corner depiction of a Muslim wearing a fez, obviously resonates with today's Guggenheim-goers, but "Freedom from Fear," which shows a dad holding a newspaper with a headline proclaiming "Horror" and "Bombings," gets New Yorkers in the gut.
The artistry is apparent, as even the Times's Kimmelman noted early this month: "A narrow sliver of light reflecting off the glass of a picture hung above the bed balances the larger rectangle of light from the stairwell outside the room. The diagonal slant of the attic ceiling helps guide your eye down from father to mother to the children and locks the composition into place. The standing figures are silhouettes against a wall cast in shadow."
"Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," with its 70-plus oil paintings and all 322 of the artist's Saturday Evening Post covers, is scheduled to continue at the Guggenheim until March 3. Attendance is likely to be higher during this time of insecurity than it would be at a time when we thought normality was normal, when we were concerned with AK-47s but not 757s turned into missiles.
Rockwell rocks at a time when tucking kids into bed has moved from everydayness to victory, with more people understanding that even if there has been frustration at work and dispute at home, every day without terrorism is a good day. And Americans are appreciating Rockwell anew during Thanksgiving week this year, as we thank God that we are able to go about our business, although with increased vigilance; that we are able to live our lives, but with increased appreciation of simple pleasures; and that we are free to pray and worship, with praise for His everyday, tender mercies.