Hoke Floats

Saying Grace, 1951, oil on canvas, Ken and Katharine Stuart Collection.
courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

No modern artist made more of normality than Norman Rockwell did.

"I do ordinary people in everyday situations, and that's about all I can do," he once wrote.

Yet Rockwell had a highly theatrical and romanticized sense of the ho-hum.

The more than 70 paintings and several hundred magazine illustrations in "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," which opens this week at the Phoenix Art Museum, show that he painted a world of unending charm and civility, where American virtues were being constantly polished by a rouge of big-heartedness, humor and prayer.

"If there was sadness in this created world of mine," he said, "it was pleasant sadness. If there were problems, there were humorous problems."

So, even during the 20th century's calamitous Depression and two world wars, his pictures remained as comforting as a wrap of homespun cotton.

About the only signs of degradation that appeared in them were flattened cigarette butts or occasional patches and rust.

The tooth-rotting sweetness of Rockwell's world has tended to be too much for art critics, historians and other jaded urbanites, who during his career labeled him a master of a fake American life and dismissed the throwback, small-town tone of his work.

Woody Allen may have inflicted the ultimate zinger in his 1977 movie Annie Hall when he replied to Annie's yammering about her Grammie Hall, "What? Did you grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?"

But such doubts about the genuineness of Rockwell's world didn't cramp the public's enthusiasm for it. From 1916 through 1963, when he produced 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, he rose from the ranks of the era's numerous talented magazine illustrators to become the name in art, right next to that of Walt Disney, that just about every American knew and loved.

When the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Rockwell lived, dedicated its bicentennial parade to him in 1976, two years before he died at age 84, 10,000 people showed up to watch American history roll by on floats decked out to look like Rockwell paintings. The Rockwell Museum there continues to draw about 185,000 people a year. And this show has been a box-office smash. More than 600,000 people have attended its first four of seven national stops, which will conclude later this year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The resulting cash flow isn't confined to ticket sales. During the 12-week opening run at the High Museum in Atlanta, which organized the exhibition with the Rockwell Museum, the gift shop grossed about $1.75 million from sales of Rockwell trinkets. The Phoenix museum is looking to gross close to $2 million.

Cynics argue that this resounding ka-ching is about the only reason a museum would mount a Rockwell show, that the artist is no better than a mid-rank illustrator who pandered to popular tastes, moods and concerns.

There are bits of truth in all of those claims. Rockwell himself acknowledged that he always painted with a finger to the wind.

"I could never be satisfied with just the approval of the critic . . . or a small group of kindred souls," he said. "So I have painted pictures that didn't disturb anybody, that I knew everyone would understand and like."

This hunger for acceptance made him the perfect cover artist for a mass-circulation magazine. Unlike museum and gallery art, cover art had to communicate without having to be explained. And it had to do so in a city glance.

"If it doesn't strike me immediately," George Lorimer, the editor at the Post until the late 1930s used to tell Rockwell about his proposed covers, "I don't want it. And neither does the public. They won't spend an hour figuring it out. It's got to hit them."

What hit them, of course, wasn't a painting. It was a glossy reproduction of one.

Week after week, regardless of the image, the magazine covers arrived always the same size, always the same texture. They faithfully conveyed Rockwell's shorthand narrative gift and his direct connection with his audience. But they only generally reflected the subtleties of his meticulous craft and eye for detail.

The Phoenix exhibition gives you all of Rockwell, both the magazine covers -- a room filled with all 322 of them -- and some of the paintings behind them.

This show is the art world's first major attempt since the artist's death to clear his name and apply the tag of high art to his output. It comes at a time of broad reassessment in the arts, when old canons are being revised or completely chucked, and new ones installed.

At odds with the powerful abstract and urban forces that drove the art of his day, Rockwell's taut visual stories set against a backdrop of small-town life suit the contemporary interest in social meaning and narrative art.  

Yet, in the eyes of some, the new verdict of Rockwell cuts both ways.

He is a "more important artist than his modernist and postmodernist detractors will ever admit," writes critic Dave Hickey in one of the exhibition's 14 catalogue essays, "and a more complex artist than his traditionalist defenders are likely to admit."

More than his masterful fool-the-eye technique, his paintings, which are considerably larger than the Post covers, have a surface richness that was mostly lost in the published translations.

In his 1947 The Babysitter, of a screaming infant in the lap of a teenage girl, you see him using the painting's underlying canvas to lend real texture to the upholstery of the chair, wallpaper and carpeting in the scene, going so far as to attach a safety pin to the painted cloth hanging over the chair's arm.

Such tricks were considered weak conceits at a time when advanced American painters were beginning to explore the nuances of immense flat abstractions.

But they clearly helped to give Rockwell's world its distinct sense of message, mood and place.

There's little ambiguity about the warmth that Rockwell meant to convey in his 1950 painting Shuffleton's Barbershop, an after-hours view through the front of the shop to the glowing back room where three men play musical instruments.

The same is true of the famous Freedom From Want, Freedom of Speech and Freedom From Fear paintings he made in the early 1940s as part of a series illustrating President Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms."

There's no denying the propagandistic edge to these works. They and the civil rights paintings he made in the 1960s were the closest Rockwell came to politically charged Social Realism.

Yet seen alongside paintings like the 1951 Saying Grace, which features a grandmother and young grandson bowing heads over a meal in a railroad diner, they constituted a window on the American outlook. The people in these pictures weren't the high and mighty. They were common folk portrayed as the American anyman and anywoman.

Rockwell composed his paintings with a precise directorial sense of what he needed each image to say. The man with Cliff Robertson's good looks in Freedom of Speech has obviously risen to have his say at a town meeting in Vermont. All eyes are on him. He's completely at ease. Rockwell positioned you as a viewer a few seats ahead of the man in the crowd. So you're very much with him, looking up at him.

Early in his career, Rockwell painted directly from models. But he eventually took to posing and photographing his scenes, so he could work from the photographs. He didn't use professional models, but instead relied on his neighbors.

"He knew exactly what he wanted to do," recalls Mary Leonard of Tempe, who appears as a young girl in Girl at Mirror and Girl With Black Eye and a number of other Rockwell works. "He would call my mother and say, 'Hey, I need Mary to come over and I'm going to be doing such and such and she needs to have these kinds of shoes and jeans.'"

Leonard says Rockwell was just as meticulous about arranging the poses of people in his vignettes.

"He would sit down and show me a sketch and try to set a scene."

Girl at Mirror depicts a young girl in a slip gazing thoughtfully at herself in a mirror, a doll on the floor beside the mirror and a magazine open to a picture of a Hollywood actress.

In posing that image, says Leonard, who was 10 at the time, "he told me he wanted me to dream of this beautiful, wonderful woman that I was going to become. He said, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Well, I didn't have a thought in my head. That picture did not click with me because I was too young. If I had been 14, it might have been different. So he told me to look serious and pensive."

She didn't know what pensive meant. But somehow Rockwell managed to coax the expression he wanted to portray.

Rockwell had an assistant who photographed the scenes in black and white while the artist acted as the stage director and cheerleader, jumping in and out of the scene to adjust a gesture or look. Leonard says Rockwell freely interpreted the colors and some details of the scene, often changing the color of the clothes she wore when she posed, or adding items.

She points out that the magazine in her lap wasn't part of her pose. Rockwell added it later, along with the makeup, hairbrush and comb at her feet.  

Rockwell later regretted using the magazine picture.

Says Leonard, "His thought about that picture was of a little girl dreaming about becoming a woman. But when he put that picture in, it became interpreted as a little girl wanting to grow up to be a beautiful movie star. I didn't know that then. But later, when people commented about the poignancy of that picture, he'd say, 'Yes, but I went one step too far.'"

What was real and compelling about many of his posed scenes was the openness of the expressions on the faces of his models.

They were the faces of a fading rural America. There's no question that Rockwell sacrificed some emotional depth in his paintings to his nostalgia for what he called "the clean simple country life."

He tried to change that toward the end of his years, with some harsh portrayals of the civil rights struggle. But he lacked the feel for the realities of modern life.

His strength, as he once noted, was in painting life as he wanted it to be.

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