Norman Rockwell: Americana, Modernism and Taste

Rockwell: A master, a mystery and a puzzle.
American at its best.

Norman Rockwell and his broad appeal for creating vintage Americana in the time abstract modernism barely outpaces the mystery that continues to surround him and his work and the place it holds in the collective cultural taste of the American public.  And the mystery is this: was he a great artist, one of the last truly figurative painters in the tradition of Hogarth and Daumier? or was he a facile, albeit witty, illustrator and mechanic who parlayed an undeniable skill for drafting into an industry of proper taste for proper citizens – the ones who like “nice” things on their walls?

On the surface, Rockwell’s paintings reside somewhere between the figurative brilliance of Andrew Wyeth and the sentimental outpourings of the late Thomas Kincaid. Norman Rockwell is to American painting what Robert Frost was to American poetry. Both were perceived as kindly avuncular men easy in their ways about the rustic villages where they lived. In fact they were chracters of a very different stripe. Both found a wide audience among the mainstream who find security and comfort in Americana, distrust modernism and the primarily urban predilection, or taste, for the shock of the new.  Both, despite their critics, were serious artists, and, not surprisingly, both despaired of being understood, as in “really understood,” by the audience that lionized them.

Frost, the Vermont country farmer with the “Clarence” eyebrows and patch of white hair,  was a crotchety curmudgeon who drank too much, talked too much, disdained his acolytes, disparaged his betters and psychologically abused his children. (One story has it that after a night of drinking by himself in his kitchen, he dragged two of his kids out of bed, sat them at the kitchen table and required them to agree on the identity of the child he would then kill with a gunshot to the head. Gratefully, after sometime, he allowed both children to return to bed, physically safe but emotionally scarred.)

Norman Rockwell, the man,  was and remains a mystery. He was a New England resident like J.D. Salinger, though he was better than even J.D, Salinger at keeping everyone at a safe distance, silently proclaiming his isolation, apparently without having to succumb to the sting of loneliness. According to his most recent biographer, Deborah Solomon, his emotional coldness was extreme, and, all told, in the end, his life must be called a sad life. Driven by the kind of ambition that can find rest only in unquestioned success, Rockwell was enormously successful. The paintings sold; whether by artist or illustrator, the paintings sold. On this very date Sotheby’s auctioned “Saying Grace” for $46 million.

Of course the big money usually comes in after the artist dies, because the supply and demand equation gets pretty simple; however, Rockwell sold well throughout his career. In the age of magazines and magazine covers, every subscriber to the “Saturday Evening Post” waited on the most recent idyll of Americana, all but thrown up as a bulwark in defense against those crazy lower east side bohemian modernists: Pollock, DeKoonig, Rothko, Kline, Gorky and others. Not unlike Hogarth or Daumier, who were also bridled with the “mere illustrator” appellation,  Rockwell painted what people could identify and name, and he arranged his compositions to convey a story, a bit of wisdom, or a wisdom snippet, in which familiarity, humor, and even wit, play a part in assuring the viewer that he’s in safe territory. Just as if he is in the presence of the kind of artist who need not drip paint from an old tin can, because, when called upon, he has the talent to make  hand look like a hand, a face like a face, and a bicycle like a bicycle.

It’s unfortunate but all too true that a person’s desired level of “comfort” should have so much to do with what a culture terms “taste.”  American modernism, the New York school of abstract expressionism, vibrant throughout the mid-century-post-nuclear-bomb-cold-war-world challenged the viewer to rethink the apparently, though not actually objective, permanence of any image. They built on the experiments of Picasso and Braque and worked with the disintegration of form to free form in an effort to purify form. It was a heady time in mid-twentieth century, and the art world gasped and then applauded as the lions on the street (to be found most nights drinking in McSorley’s or the White Horse Tavern) sought to turn the entire “art-thing” on its head. Where once talent, even genius, was determined by the skill the artist employed to create illusions of depth and distance over a two-dimensional surface, the cold realities of modern life (war, mutually assured destruction), artists like Rothko sought to return the canvas to what it was and always had been: a two-dimensional surface – flat, flat, flat.

The critics, Clement Greenburg and Leo Castelli, rode a wave of intellectual rationale to tempered incomprehension, marking the lines with bold strokes: “Within this circle comprised of this clique, we know what the painters are doing and why it’s important to the health and progress of art and civilization. Outside this circle stand the rest of humanity, neither particularly silent nor ignorant, but terribly challenged by the notion of paint on a canvas that signifies nothing more than paint on canvas.”

It was this aesthetic demarcation and the confusion underlying the clash of the new with the familiar, when the end point of modernism in the visual arts (like the works of Joyce, Beckett and Proust) asserted for all to hear that the abstract expressionists were not to be followed or imitated, because there was nothing more to be said in their particular way. All true modernists,  intentionally or not, become the alpha and the omega of their individual styles and content.

And while all of this was going on in New York, as New York was about to usurp Paris’s position as the center of the art world, most Americans watched the new box in their living rooms with the screen and moving pictures, wanted to root out communists from the state department, and read their bibles while longing for Americana in the way National Conventioneers long for self-justification in a godless world. Some turned to Wyeth and the melancholic beauty of “Christina’s World,” and even more turned to Norman Rockwell for the ostensibly safe harbor of figurative work, accessible to at least one of the five senses.

The crisis remains, however; Rockwell, like Wyeth and Great Britain’s Lucien Freud, boldly sailed his ship in dangerous waters, under attack from every abstract thought extant among the hoy polloi. He looked back to Rembrandt and Caravaggio and Raphael and even DaVinci and determined that there was still a lot to be said, to be done, to be painted and finished in the realm of the kind of art work where faces are still faces, hands are still hands, and the illusion of depth where there is no depth is a good thing and a marvel to behold.  As for Americana, Rockwell was a master; as for modernism Rockwell remains a challenge, and as for taste – well, who’s to say.

By Michael Hogan

The Spectrum

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