New York

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell is not a complicated artist but he is a complicated case. The tides that washed him up at the Guggenheim must have included the democratic currents of the ’60s, which encompassed, in art, the anti-Clement Greenberg, pro- kitsch, fun-loving flow of ideas that eventually liberated audiences to take new kinds of interest and pleasure in vernacular culture. Rockwell is a beneficiary of that moment, but a paradoxical one, being, for many, a glamorizer of the most parochial, conventional,white-bread side of American life. And while the following of demotic trends has led to an academy that can accommodate Madonna studies. much of the catalogue for this hit show (hereon the last stop of a national tour that began at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in November 1999) is art history of a quite old-fashioned kind. You might think Dave Hickey is teasing when he points out that the “easel-sized rectangular canvas” of After the Prom, 1957, is “about 13 percent taller than it is wide,” but he actually does see the painting as an “intricately constructed, deeply knowledgeable work that recruits the total resources of European narrative picture-making.” Watching him set Rockwell alongside Fragonard, David, Chardin, Hals, Poussin, and Tiepolo, you wonder again if he’s kidding—but no, he’s a fan.

Care at all about popular art forms and you’ll have no trouble with this—I’m one of those annoying Hitchcock-as-Shakespeare types myself—and Hickey is characteristically pyrotechnic here. But the book’s thirteen (thirteen!) other essayists are for the most part more staid, and a perverse pleasure of the show itself was reading the wall labels, with their slightly desperate claims for the artist’s astuteness. “Rockwell observed,” one of them submitted, “that the automobile. . . changed our daily lives.” Perhaps Rockwell shouldn’t be blamed for the solemn banality of his defenders, but the anonymous writer here went farther in doing him no service by accidentally channeling Orson Welles, whose 1942 movie The Magnificent Ambersons also deals with the meaty subject of the effect of the car on modernity and is both dramatically and visually intense. The Rockwell equivalent in the show is a whimsical picture of a rural cop setting a speed trap. It is perfectly fine whimsy, but it is popular art as anecdote, not inquiry.

To anatomize After the Prom as a pattern of vectors and angles, as Hickey does, is to reinstate a genre of pictorial analysis that doesn’t figure in art writing much anymore yet is surely a part of the basic vocabulary of painting. One notices, though, that Hickey deals heavily with composition and barely at all with color or surface, typical elements of the kind of approach his essay takes. Perhaps this is because in Rockwell those elements are obstacles to conventional connoisseurship—they have no richness, at least not as paint. The pictures were made, after all, not to become unique auratic objects but to be printed in the Saturday Evening Post, and an economics of effort must have been active, a practiced awareness of what would translate or even gain in reproduction and what wasn’t worth the labor. So, making allowances, we turn to the images as narratives, for their stories and dramatis personae. These are the reasons why so many people adore Rockwell—but also why he leaves others cold: Except in the handful of civil rights-related paintings from his later years, he was famously self-censoring. Rockwell loved Dickens, and is Dickensian in his eye for detail and his affection for one-note comic characters, but Dickens could not have written, as Rockwell did, of producing works “that didn’t disturb anybody, that I knew everyone would understand and like.” Dickens disturbed without sacrifice of popularity; his every idyll of community and hilarious good humor he complemented with the flip-side nightmare of life as he had traumatically experienced it. At this dazed moment in our country’s history, it is troubling to find Rockwell, whose representation of America was for the most part so resolutely one-sided, being so loudly praised.

David Frankel