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Norman Rockwell: Way more complicated than he looks

4:27 PM, Nov 30, 2013   |    comments
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Why is it that so many great artists were so screwed up? Even Norman Rockwell. Norman Rockwell, for pete's sake!

He's the cornball king, the artist as fantasy storyteller, the artist of Americana. For decades in the 20th century, he was the unofficial "artist-in-chief," painter of presidents and patriotism, the artist instantly recognized by every I-don't-know-anything-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like American.

But was he a "real' artist? Art-world types argue about it to this day. Even Rockwell (especiallyRockwell) dithered, dismissing himself as a mere illustrator while secretly longing to be taken seriously as ARTIST, all caps.

As his new and apparently first serious biographer, Deborah Solomon, makes clear in this highly readable, illuminating book, Rockwell was more than an illustrator. It seems obvious from this book that Rockwell and his work meet the criteria for inclusion in the artistic immortality club: He painted arresting images that move us, inspire us, amuse us, that tell us something about ourselves and our times.

But his full story is often surprising. Solomon goes over the details of his family and artistic heritage, his many quirks and his fundamental isolation, his artistic temperament and thinking, the stories he told in paint, the stories behind the paintings, and the many neighbors and ordinary schmoes he recruited to pose for them.

Today, Rockwell (1894-1978) is an art star, collected by other stars (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg), who by the end of his life was admired by contemporary art stars (de Kooning, Warhol), and festooned with awards and medals. His paintings have a place in high-art museums, fans line up to see his work in traveling exhibits, and auctions of his paintings can produce headline-grabbing results, a sure sign of art success.

On Dec. 4, Sotheby's is due to auction three iconic paintings - The Gossips (it's the cover of this book), Walking to Church and Saying Grace (which is widely considered a masterpiece) - with expectations that at least two could top the record price for Rockwell at auction, $15.4 million, set in 2006 for Breaking Home Ties.

If there's any lingering doubt about where he fits in, Rockwell had other characteristics of many artists: He was deeply damaged (mom was a problem), painfully insecure, obsessive-compulsive, and way more complicated than might appear from the homey images in his 323 paintings over nearly 50 years for the cover of the most popular magazine of an era when everyone read magazines, the Saturday Evening Post.

If you thought you knew what Rockwell was all about, well, Solomon suggests maybe not. Did you know that he spent years in therapy with a leading psychiatrist - Erik Erikson - decades before seeing a shrink was routine? He struggled throughout his life with depression; his second wife, Mary, was even sicker. He abruptly picked up and moved from Arlington, Vt., to the town of Stockbridge, Mass., ostensibly so that his wife could be treated at Erikson's clinic there, but also so he himself could go into therapy.

What did he talk about? We'll never know, but Rockwell is another famous dead person retrospectively labeled gay by modern gender theorists. But not by Solomon, who looks into it and finds nothing to prove that Rockwell had sex with men or boys. Yes, he was more comfortable with men and young boys than women, and had intense relationships with some. But if Rockwell was gay, he didn't seem to know it and didn't act on it.

He was, however, plainly odd. In public he was an affable, pipe-smoking, golly-gee kind of guy; in private, he was strangely remote and opaque to his brother, his three wives, three sons and his friends, editors and associates. He was a neat freak, who washed his paintbrushes and swept his studio repeatedly during the day, and polished his shoes even during camping trips.

He was born on the Upper West Side and raised primarily in the New York metropolis, but painted, over and over, small-town America - or what we learned to think of as small-town America. As it turns out, it was a vision of America that Solomon demonstrates is entirely a fantasy, a vision Rockwell wanted to be true and, as it turned out, many of us wanted as well.

"Rockwell invented the small town that is located nowhere in particular," she writes. "The small town that is large enough to encompass the entire population of the United States."

Many people also assumed, just from looking at his paintings, that he was an avatar of conservative politics, and maybe he was in the beginning. By his later years, he had come out for nuclear disarmament, voted for Lyndon Johnson, and become a civil-rights advocate at a time when that was seen as alarmingly radical. The Problem We All Live With (1964), the unforgettable image of little Ruby Bridges, surrounded by beefy bodyguards, integrating a grammar school in New Orleans, remains, Solomon says, the single most famous painting of the civil-rights movement.

An arts writer, art critic and author of well-received biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, Solomon is blessedly free of art-world blather or snobbery, writing in a style that balances elegance, irony and straightforward storytelling. She is especially good at explaining what is going on in the paintings. The clarity of her analysis makes you consider things you might not have noticed, such as for example, homoeroticism, or something you thought meant something else.

As she says in her introduction, she didn't grow up with a Rockwell poster on her bedroom wall - he was too uncool. Instead, it was Helen Frankenthaler. Nevertheless, she grasped the transformation of art-world thinking about Rockwell as the new millennium dawned and the Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted an exhibit of his work that, for the first time for Rockwell, accorded art-museum approval of an artist beloved by the masses.

"The scathing condescension directed at Rockwell during his lifetime eventually made him a prime candidate for revisionist therapy, which is to say, an art-world hug," she writes. Solomon has delivered a warm embrace even the diffident Rockwell would have appreciated.


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