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The many masks of modern art

It says a great deal about the climate of the art world that I hesitate, even now, to admit publicly that one of my most pleasant memories of the 1970s was the Norman Rockwell retrospective I saw in 1972.

To discover that Rockwell could paint beautifully when he wanted to, that he was not just the sentimental and simlistic illustrator we all knew, gave me great pleasure. So much so, in fact, that I told everyone I could to see the show. Some did, and thanked me for recommending it; a few more went and disliked it, and one acquaintance refused to even discuss it, stating most emphatically that while he had never seen any of his originals, he didn't "need to because Rockwell was a hack and everyone knows it."

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The show was a smashing public success, both in New York and in the other cities where it was shown, but received very little critical attention. And when the show wasm reviewed, the critics by and large didn't know what to make of it.

Those who weren't completely patronizing saw Rockwell's paintings as a form of camp, as interesting only on a technical level, or as visual evidence of mid- 20th-century American nostalgia for simpler times and places. These critics were willing, it seemed, to view his work in any fashion except the way it should be viewed: as the serious work of a serious man, one who did, admittedly, turn out a great deal of straight commercial illustration, but one who also produced roughly two dozen extraordinary narrative paintings, works that were so sensitively conceived and beautifully painted that they will, I'm convinced, be hanging in our museums when a great deal of what is hanging there now will be gone and forgotten.

I know that the very possibility of this happening is deeply upsetting to many -- just as it is upsetting to many that the Metropolitan Museum, is setting up its recently opened Andre Meyer Galleries devoted to 19th-century European art, saw fit to give over one of those galleries to the paintings of the despised French Academy. But art history has a way of taking a broader view than do those who live through a particular period, and can usually detect quality even in works deemed heretical of irrevelant in their own time.

Now, I'm not predicting that Rockwell will ever be considered one of the great artists of this century, only that time will prove that he did occasionally produce some extremely good work, and that those paintings of his which are of that caliber will be given their respectful due -- while the rest will be assigned to the oblivion theym justly deserve.

There can be no doubt that Rockwell's production was uneven, that most of it was trivial, even, at times, embarrassingly hackneyed. He had a difficult time avoiding the obvious and overly sentimental: little boys were invariably freckled and gawky, had big ears, and loved baseball; little old ladies were kindly and loved nothing so much as to give cookies to children and to beam at evidence of young love. And everyone was God-fearing, patriotic, hardworking, and respectful of motherhood, apple pie, and the sanctity of marriage.

It was a simple world in which right was obviously right and wrong was obviously wrong, and everyone knew the precise distinctions between them. If things did momentarily go astray, one simply went to kindly old Aunt Evangeline or to the local minister or priest for help.

Nostalgia and sentiment were Rockwell's stock in trade, and no one knew better than he how to utilize them. His best works were predicated upon profoundly human situations: a farm boy having a last word with his father before leaving for college; a couple checking to see that their children were safely tucked in for the night; the Tanksgiving prayer in an ordinary diner. No matter if what he painted was joyous, funny, poignant, or sad, it was always based on human experience, always told a story or projected a human mood. This was an art in which what man did and how he felt was what was primary in art, not "self-expression," abstraction, or formal innovation.

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How then could any mid-20th-century American critic, raised as he had been on the notion that formal matters were what counted in art, take Rockwell's storytelling and sentimentality seriously? How could he do anything but turn away from his kindly little old ladies, freckle-faced children, and checker-playing Uncle Harry -- and see all that as trivial and beside the point of art?

He really had no alternative but to ignore, even to ridicule, what Rockwell produced. Even if he rather enjoyed some of Rockwell's illustrations, possibly even admired the skill with which they were done, he still had no acceptable frame of reference within which to approach them favorably as a professional critic.

The solution, of course, of appreciating Rockwell is simple and obvious: set aside for the moment all modernist critical criteria and look at these paintings as storytelling vehicles whose painterly precedents go back to the art preceding that of the Impressionists. Now this is not as reactionary as it may sound. We're willing enough to do it while responding to the work of the latest New Realists and Photo-Realists, and to some of the more intriguing narrative paintings which are once again becoming somewhat fashionable. doing so is really not difficult, and once Rockwell's trivial pictures have been separated from the few good ones, we will discover that there is enough excellent Norman Rockwell material left ot make it more than worthwhile.

I have chosen to illustrate this article with Rockwell's "Book of Romance" because it shows Rockwell at his best and at his most commercial. It includes some remarkable painting that will look good 500 years from now, and some details that already look dated and superficial even though the picture was painted only a little over 50 years ago.

If we examine the lower-left section, we will find in it some beautiful passages of pure painting. The trouser leg, the way the umbrella lies on the floor, and the placement, weight, and texture of the table leg are pure painterly magic. And the man's hands and head are also superb.

On the other hand, while most of the rest of the picture is solidly painted, the upper- right corner is pure hack illustration, with the couple rendered precisely as they would have been for a contemporary soap advertisement. There is neither human character nor painterly enchantment -- only slick and empty professionalism.

One of these days someone is going to take a good, hard look at Rockwell's entire production, and will select from it enough material for a small but eye-opening exhibition. Such a show, carefully, even ruthlessly, screened to include only the very best of his paintings, would probably occupy only one gallery of one of our major museums, but it would, I'm certain, go far to establish Rockwell as one of our minor 20th-century American masters.

A page of art history is turning -- has, probably, already turned -- and what is coming into view is causing us to change some of our century-old attitudes and opinions about art. Any insistence that only the art that reflects our point of view belongs in our museums will do nothing but prove that we are as old-fashioned and out of touch as any of Rockwell's country bumpkins.

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