I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work of Norman Rockwell. He used the techniques of illustration to paint a world that ignored complexity and captured some imagined untroubled time. As W. S. Di Piero points out in an essay about his work in When Can I See You Again?, “He represented experience in a way that presumed hospitable intimacies but wasn’t intimate at all…his narrow pictorial and moral range left nothing to chance. He over-managed effects and stiffly controlled audience response. His pictures are by and large cold Yankee products in which human intimacy is a contrived icy gaiety.”
But he was popular. He got his first Post cover when he was 22 and spent his life with high visibility and success. His work became signatory of an entire era in American cultural history.
Di Piero isn’t complete bloodless in his critique of Rockwell. He was a “scrupulous, hard working craftsman” and had no illusions about himself and what he was about. “He once said he painted America not as it really was but as he would like it to be.”
While Di Piero’s essay on Rockwell is in response to a traveling exhibit from 15 years ago, the final paragraph rings true in a timeless way:
Pardon my dyspepsia. I’m ragging on Rockwell for not being what he never wanted to be. But it’s irritating that so much blockbuster expense and space—the show ended its tour at the Guggenheim, whose manipulative curatorial strategies so often cynically twist art-world rumor into established greatness—is given over to such an artist when we need more good, substantial shows of Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and Fairfield Porter, all of them purer American artists than Rockwell could ever hope to be.
With giant New York blockbuster art shows heading our way from Jeff Koons at the Whitney and Björk (yes, that one) at MOMA, Di Piero’s dyspepsia about “manipulative curatorial strategies” that turn “art-world rumor into established greatness” is a good description of how many of us feel about these two exhibitions. I just have to ask: REALLY?