PRINT October 1997


Jarvis Rockwell’s toy collection is housed in a suite of offices on the corner of Main and Railroad in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This is Norman Rockwell country, and Jarvis is Norman’s eldest son. I first saw the collection with the poet Geoffrey Young, who thought I might find some things to borrow for my work. But given the cloyingly nostalgic image of a kinder gentler America Rockwell’s lineage evokes, I assumed I would only find a bunch of tin toys from the ’30s and ’40s.
He and I were both wrong.
First, you don’t borrow from Rockwell’s collection. I had to stick to looking (though he invited me back to take the photographs that appear below). Indeed, during the warmer months Rockwell sits on a bench in front of the building and invites people to come in and see his toys. For the last eighteen years he has been accumulating seemingly every figure and object churned out as kid culture wherever he happens to be—K-Marts, AMES stores, drugstores, airports, supermarkets. Sometimes he buys by the dozens. I estimated 10,000 objects in the collection. He guesses the number’s around a million.
Second, the collection bears no relation to antique-shop Americana. Instead, it represents a relentless drive to archive and organize a sorcerer’s apprentice–like assembly line of plastic objects. To take the kind of time looking that Rockwell’s painstaking arrangements merit is to discover detailed narratives and subtle transitions, moments of luminous beauty, and some flat-out wackiness. There are cowboys and princesses, Ninjas and Barbies, Happy Meal freebies, tons of Disney and TV, and a shelf dedicated to ex-presidents.
In the last five years a handful of figures have migrated into ten-by-twelve-inch Plexiglas boxes where heads are swapped, tiny carpets and potted palms are added, and satellite worlds are created. Last January I included Rockwell’s work in an exhibition of mostly younger artists I organized, “The Name of the Place,” at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York. Though Rockwell is comfortable calling his boxes artworks, defining the scope and nature of the collection is tougher to do.
—Laurie Simmons

Laurie Simmons: When did you buy your first toy?

Jarvis Rockwell: Oh, you mean as an adult? In 1979. I bought a little German pressed-metal duck that you pull back, and then it went forward like that.

LS: And when did you start buying in multiple? I mean, when were you aware that you were leaving the realm of a toy collector—

JR: Of reality.

LS: Of reality, right, and moving into some other territory?

JR: Oh, I don’t know. About a few months into it. I started buying—there were Fisher-Price policemen, and I saw a bunch of those, and I wanted those. And, you know, policemen, if you have a line of them—I began to think in terms of crowds and crowd control.

LS: So are there times when two look right, and other times when twenty look right?

JR: I’ve got eighty Burt Reynolds in a box upstairs, because I just thought I’d get that many at that time, which was—oh, it must have been ten years ago now. And so I just bought, you know—

LS: Eighty Burt Reynolds?

JR: Yeah. Well, I mean, I don’t like Burt Reynolds, you see. I mean, his character is not of the best sort. But, you know, he’s got a red shirt on, blue jeans, and a cowboy hat, and he’s metal. And he’s just about two and a half, two inches tall. I probably have more of them than he does.

LS: You have everything from G. I. Joes to Ninjas, to Polly Pockets, My Little Ponies, and Sky Dancers. Do you think of toys in gender-specific terms, like boys and girls and pink and blue?

JR: When I began, what with the women’s lib having come on I just thought: Well, I oughta get female toys. And I do have lots of toys of women. They have lots of women superheroes now. I’ve got two shelves of them there. The thing is that they do all of the women with these extraordinary bodies. I mean, they’re unbelievable.

LS: She’s quite a blonde there.

JR: Isn’t she? One of the advantages she has is, she stays like that for the rest of her life. One of her disadvantages is, she can’t do anything about it.

LS: So you’re conscious of things like the differences between girls that are portrayed in Barbie-ish ways, and then the girl superheroes.

JR: Oh, yeah. I have a wonderful Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower done in the same proportions as a Michelangelo—big head, little body. And see that one right there—I’ve got a comic book about her. She was an angel and she fell. And that’s not sold in toy stores—that’s sold in adult comic-book stores, you see. And those girls over there, they still wanted ’em to look pretty, and sort of cute, but they also wanted them able to do something, you see? The idea was to have girls doing something.

LS: Doing more than looking pretty.

JR: Right, right, right. I have a figure with blond hair and silver lips who’s wearing slacks with a silver space suit that clips over her clothes and transforms her into a space traveler. That was the point when two possibilities were presented in one girl.

LS: Then came Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Gem.

JR: And the other thing that bothered me was that—you know, black people come in to see the thing, and I didn’t have much to show. But I got a Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And there’s a black toy company. And they put out a whole range of characters. And, interestingly enough, with different types of black faces. I mean, it wasn’t just some kind of standard: this is what a black person looks like. There were different kinds of faces, you know?

LS: So you’re more conscious of a kind of multicultural representation in here.

JR: Yeah. And then there’s Sailor Moon, which is Japanese, and she’s the prettiest thing you could ever see. She has legs twice as long as necessary. And she has these large eyes, and they’re kind of preteen. But when something bad happens, she and her friends achieve this extraordinary strength.

LS: There’s so many thousands of things set up on the shelves here, and if you spend some time, you can always find a kind of narrative. Are you conscious of that in the way that you arrange things, or does that unfold unconsciously?

JR: I don’t know. I think it’s partly having a father who’s an artist who did paintings—illustrations, you know. And if you have a sort of tendency to be visual, and your father’s also visual, it’s sort of one step further on the ladder right away. And you just think in terms of pictures.

LS: Your father’s pictures told a story. So maybe that’s one thing you can cite as an influence. Although you’re telling such different kinds of stories.

JR: Yeah, if my father had been, you know, de Kooning, I mean, I might have been different. Although I must tell you that his daughter was up in Stockbridge. And one time it was a very dark and windy evening, and I was walking down Main Street, coming from my studio, and she was walking up Main Street. And there was nobody else around. And somebody had told me she was de Kooning’s daughter. So I said: How are you? My name is Jarvis Rockwell, and I understand you’re de Kooning’s daughter. And she kinda looked at me, and, you know, she didn’t want to talk. And then, about a year later, like the same thing happened on a bright sunny day—and she said hello to me and we shook hands. But, I mean, I like the idea of de Kooning’s daughter and Rockwell’s son with nobody else around, you know?

LS: Well, did your father ever talk about modern art to his sons?

JR: Yeah. One time I went to see my father, he was in the city. And he was sitting there on the bed with his pajamas on. And he had a de Kooning and a Piero della Francesca postcard on the pillow. And he’s looking at them: “I don’t know,” he said. “I just can’t . . . I just don’t understand.”

LS: Did you get any sense that he felt excluded from the contemporary art world? Did he feel separate from it, or in any way connected to it or the contemporary art discourse of his time?

JR: See, he felt that he was an illustrator. I think everybody, even an illustrator, would like to be considered so fine that they were maybe not quite an illustrator. But he knew he was an illustrator. With all that in mind, he—yeah, he felt like time was going by him.

LS: Did he ever propagandize against those guys? Because you did end up in art school.

JR: Oh, yeah. The first art school I went to was the Art Students League, and so I went into Frank J. Reilly’s class. He was an illustrator, and he was really, truly awful. And then I went into George Grosz’s class, which was altogether something else. There were a few old ladies and a couple of other guys, and it was dark, and it had the look of a Victorian living room, or something like that. And he was very kind, he was very sweet. And he didn’t make anything of me being Norman Rockwell’s son. I think he was also probably a little depressed. Because I know his work went down so bad when he got here, you know.

LS: But I wondered if at home there was propaganda against modern art from your dad.

JR: Oh, no, no, no. He was not that kind of person at all. You mean, just sort of angry and sulky or something? No.

LS: Did your family look like a classic Rockwell family? Was it picture-perfect?

JR: Well, he was hoping for a lot of that, and almost none of it worked. I mean, we didn’t even mow lawns.

LS: Did you have big perfect shiny brown turkeys at Thanksgiving?

JR: Oh, yeah, we had all that stuff. That we enjoyed.

LS: Christmas trees and wreaths, Easter baskets, Fourth of July picnics?

JR: Yeah, but he really enjoyed it—I mean, he truly enjoyed it. So it wasn’t something set up by Curtis Publishing Company, you know. He really believed it all. But he just wasn’t Norman Rockwell the way a lot of people thought. He was a little more interesting.

LS: Your father’s work was really involved in this kind of Americana, you know, a depiction of the myth of the American family. And you’re really involved in another kind of Americana. Do you see a connection there?

JR: I think probably there is a connection, and I sort of tried to figure it out. And then I thought: Well, it’s not important to figure it out. I mean, that, again, is something for, you know, art historians or psychiatrists to figure out. But I would say there obviously is a connection.

LS: I’m wondering about this kind of reluctance to call yourself an artist, when it comes right down to it. I’m wondering if that maybe was an inheritance from your dad.

JR: Oh, yeah—maybe.

LS: You definitely are uncomfortable with terms and definitions.

JR: Well, I think I’m an artist—I’m beginning to believe I’m an artist in the same sense as those outsider artists are.

LS: Do you see yourself as that?

JR: Well, I got interested in that, and I began to think that maybe this collection has something to do with that. I mean, I didn’t finish high school, but, on the other hand, I’ve been an artist for a while—so, you know, I guess I’m educated and I’ve done art.

LS: Well, let’s talk about the artworks that are generated from the collection. Because one thing that occurred to me is that there are thousands and thousands of objects. And yet when you make one of your little tableaux in a box, you choose such a minuscule portion of what’s here. How do you make those choices?

JR: Well, it’s like what color are you going to use. You just sort of have a preference. I’m always wondering and worrying about this collection—what I’m going do with it. I had mentioned it to this friend of mine, who has a studio upstairs, and he said: Well, why don’t you put some in boxes, or something like that, you know?

LS: Like Joseph Cornell.

JR: Yeah, Cornell—right, exactly, right. And so then I found a small box company, and then I ordered some boxes. And, I got them so these little carpets would fit. I mean, anybody can do it. You just set them up. The thing is that I find that every toy has some kind of a story that goes with it, you know. Like the crash dummies, or even figures that come from railroads have a story that has to do with that railroad company. It’s sort of a scene, with a sense of story, which a person makes up in their own mind. It’s a fantasy, you know. The boxes just fell out of me; they were so easy to do.

LS: And those you regard as artworks—the tableaux in the boxes.

JR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it’s artwork—you’d have to.

LS: In the boxes, within the narratives I noticed that lots of times you take the toys and you behead them.

JR: Let’s say move the heads around. There’s the idea or the concept of masks, you know? They’re not real people. And then there’s just the idea that you could take the head off one and put on another head that maybe had nothing to do with it. Do you know what I mean?

LS: Who’s the tiny little man sitting in a tiny chair. Can you tell me his story?

JR: Well, he is—behind him there are two people who are the managers—it’s a man and a woman—who are the managers of the whole collection. They make sure that everybody’s where they’re supposed to be when I come in the room. Because sometimes at night they have parties. They’re the managers, you know, from the toy side. Well, this one little man sitting in the chair is asleep, and he has his legs crossed, and his arms crossed like that, and he’s sound asleep. And he’s about an inch tall, if he’s standing erect. And the thing is, if he wakes up, then everything here vanishes—everything that we know vanishes.

LS: The work of many young artists today deals with issues that have been central to your work for almost twenty years—everything from repetition, accumulation, and appropriation as formal strategies, to themes like adolescence, gender stereotyping, commodification, and masquerade. You’re in your mid-sixties, though, and I think you’re coming at all of this from a different place. How did it feel to see your work in the Casey Kaplan gallery with all those young artists?

JR: I didn’t feel like I was from the same group of people, but I was very pleased to be there and to sell something after all this time.

LS: Can you describe your earlier work?

JR: I used to string colored thread between trees and over a pond. I took it from tree to tree. I had to wear waders. I saw a deer go through—it was like a phantasm. The changing sun would catch on this orange industrial thread. It was absolutely breathtaking. I took it down because I didn’t want the deer to get tangled in it. And another thing I got into was having a structure, which was done by, you know, drawing two lines close to each other. And then I would try to rid myself of the structure. And, somehow, finally, I sorted it out. It was really—it was very difficult. I didn’t really know what to do. And so, you know, I had a hard time with that. And then my father died—

LS: When did he die?

JR: He died in ’78.

LS: I didn’t realize your dad died in ’78, and the collection began in ’79.

JR: Well, the King is dead, God praise the King.

LS: Are you interested in the movies or the TV shows that influence the production of the figures?

JR: Not really. See, I think of these as more like sculptures. I mean, I don’t know if it’s possible, but they’re sort of like folk sculpture. But now folk sculpture is being mass-produced, you know.

LS: Some of my favorite shelves contain the toy furniture.

JR: I love the furniture. You know, if I had another room I would have a whole wall of furniture. It’s endless, man—it goes on and on. And even though people are collecting it now, it’s all over the place. You know, if you live in the country in the summer you just go from tag sale to tag sale, and you just find . . . you know, a complete set.

LS: Well, don’t you wish you could just sit down on that furniture and live with it? That it’s so much more beautiful than the equivalent leather and wood stuff you can buy?

JR: No, I think it’s kind of—it’s a little glittery for me.

LS: So it’s not your personal style?

JR: No. Actually, I like really nice wood furniture.

LS: Oh, my God! You have a totally countrified, traditional side.

JR: Well, right.

LS: That sensibility doesn’t come out anywhere in your collection, or in your work. I mean, what draws you in is the glitz, and the plastic, and the hypercolor, and the kind of caricature of everything. You take a light-brown bear in a pink tutu, and put it down in the middle of your austere set of brown, plastic furniture. Why do you suddenly break the mood with something so completely off-the-wall? Do you think about it? Or do you just think: That pink bear belongs in that brown chair?

JR: Yeah, that’s what I did. I think the bear looks nice there.

LS: How much stuff is packed away, that hasn’t been arranged yet?

JR: Oh, I’ve got a whole room back here. You know, it’s ten feet high. That wall and most of this wall is all brand-new stuff that I didn’t open. I just thought I’d do some of that, frankly, because I thought someday, if somebody wanted all this for a museum—museums like to have stuff that’s not unwrapped, you know.

LS: Are you ever inspired to make a toy?

JR: No, but I’d like to do vast populations.

LS: Has anybody ever walked away with a souvenir?

JR: Sometimes I get very paranoid. I think: Oh, shit—there’s a space. Did somebody walk away with that? And I don’t know.

LS: But every once in a while—

JR: There’s an awful lot of stuff here still, so I think maybe not. Sometimes kids come in. I give them—in fact I was gonna give your kids one of these toys. I got these toys at Goodwill, and the community service center around the corner here. You get them for twenty-five, fifty cents a piece, and so they’re slightly used. And, I mean, it’s very slight, you know. But that’s the thing—there are so many of them, and they are ever-present. And they are in our landfill; they’re in our pockets; they’re in our friends’ pockets; they’re in our fathers’ pockets, our daughters’ pockets. I mean, they’re on shelves, they’re under the rug—they’re everywhere. They’re like spirits, in a sense. They’re everywhere in the world, in our world. And it’s amazing to me.