Visual Arts

Hoke Floats

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.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow