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Jul 152016
 

What is so intriguing about “The Connoisseur” is wondering how Rockwell did it. And that may be an unanswerable question.”

Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA, through October 30.

By Charles Giuliano

"The Connoisseur"

Norman Rockwell, “The Connoisseur,” 1961. Oil on canvas mounted on board, Cover illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” January 13, 1962. Photo: courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

In 1916 Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) published his first illustration for The Saturday Evening Post. His work drew on the life styles of his friends and neighbors: Stockbridge, MA, then and now, became the epicenter for an idyllic (and formulaic) view of rural America. The Norman Rockwell Museum, with its focus on Rockwell’s iconic works, as well exhibitions celebrating other renowned illustrators and realists, is among the most visited museums in the region.

It is Mecca for those in search of a life affirming, aesthetically conservative view of the American dream. Rockwell created a jingoistic paradigm that could only have existed on the cover of a populist magazine. The museum also promotes the artist’s lifelong aspiration to be taken seriously by art critics. There are illustrators who achieved that status, including Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Rockwell Kent, N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish.

Rockwell’s commercial illustrations, based on keen observation and impeccable craft, became anathema to formalist critics of the post-war era, which was about, as Irving Sandler put it, “The Triumph of American Art.” Of course, the key word — “triumph” — implies winners and losers. The winners were the abstract artists and the losers, as defined by critics Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and others, were the narrative artists of social realism and the America scene that preceded them. Art became a part of Cold War propaganda, a sign of political power that Serge Guilbault documents in his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.

During the 1960s there was a palpable sense of conflict in the art world and beyond. Rockwell was targeted as the ultimate reactionary, the foe of the avant-garde. The theme of this exhibition is built around a single Rockwell work, “The Connoisseur.” The 1961 picture demonstrates that the artist took this challenge to heart. His painting is a witty and spot-on retort.

He undertook a careful study of abstraction, the tricks of its trade, and how they might be replicated. With his son Peter,  Rockwell created a number of ersatz abstract expressionist studies. A couple of these experiments are displayed in the show, along with documentary photographs chronicling their making. Using a pseudonym, Rockwell entered his ‘abstract’ paintings in regional competitions. One of them won a prize at the Berkshire Museum.

Rockwell claimed that, if he was younger, he might have been an abstract artist. Hard to wrap your head around that: it’s like imagining an elderly Monet embracing cubism, which his life and career overlapped.

On a formal level, “The Connoisseur” is a fascinating picture. Other than its unique and sophisticated visual punch line, the work is consistent with his formula for Saturday Evening Post covers. A single central figure dominates the evenly spaced composition. There is Rockwell’s signature graphic simplicity and punch.

We see the viewer from the rear, which invites us to speculate on what he is thinking. The figure has the erect, squared-off posture of a middle-aged gentleman of prominent social status. He is impeccably dressed in a gray suit. His hands are clasped behind his back, and he is clutching a homburg hat and furled umbrella with bamboo handle. One gray glove has been removed. The amazing thing is that the painting the man is contemplating is a reasonable simulacrum of a canvas that could have been painted by Jackson Pollock.

Pollock and his technique dominated the popular and intellectual dialogue about post-war American art.  A Life Magazine profile dubbed him “Jack the Dripper.” The general perception was that — because he dripped paint onto a canvas, instead of working with a brush —  abstract art was easy. Anyone between the ages of 6 and 60 could make a Pollock-like painting. Indeed, many tried. Including, it seems, Rockwell.

What is so intriguing about “The Connoisseur” is wondering how Rockwell did it. And that may be an unanswerable question.

Rockwell’s painting appears to have been dripped, but is that the case? Did he drip and then scrape down and finish the rest of the canvas? Or did he individually create all of the drips? Either approach is mind boggling.

There is a short film by Hans Namuth which places the camera underneath a sheet of glass. Pollock painted over it. (There is a similar documentary featuring Picasso working in the studio.) During a dinner party after the shoot, Pollock became enraged, grabbed a bottle from under the sink, and went on a binge that lasted the rest of his tragic life.

Without that grim result, there is a craving for a documentary film that gives us Rockwell at work on “The Connoisseur.” To a trained eye, his “Pollock” is anything but. It is too chaotic, lacking the balletic rhythms of Pollock’s best works, such as “Lavender Mist” “Autumn Rhythm,” or “Number One.” Of course, ironies abound. At Pollock’s funeral, painter Willem de Kooning said “Pollock broke the ice.” Visiting a Rockwell exhibition that included “The Connoisseur,” de Kooning commented “square inch by square inch it’s better than Jackson!”

Norman Rockwell in 1962, the year of "The Conn." Photo: Louie Lamone.

Norman Rockwell in 1962, the year of “The Connoisseur.” Photo: Louie Lamone.

With this unique painting as its focal point, Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the deputy director and chief curator of the Rockwell Museum, has attempted to provide a lively context for the cultural conflicts of the 1960s, when the artist created this work. Unfortunately, while many of the correct names are represented here (though there are a number of glaring omissions), Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World is not a very satisfying exhibition — it is more like a sassy setup, a tantalizing straw dog. Without adequate wall labels or a catalogue essay — beyond the promo copy in the museum’s magazine — there is little here for scholars and critics to evaluate or that will provoke meaningful public debate.

And that is a shame, because the issues raised by “The Connoisseur” deserve a serious, measured, and scholarly approach. Instead, revisionist and keeper of flame Haboush Plunkett has served up a tag sale/ gimmick of a show that suggests she doesn’t have the vision or perspective for this ambitious a project.

Imagine this subject undertaken by a major museum with substantial resources. What would happen if you placed Rockwell’s intriguing but ultimately kitschy and cute painting next to major works by Pollock, Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists, Minimalists, and Photo Realists? Even along those aesthetic lines the exhibition misjudges the weight and balance of its participants. Absurdly, Robert Cottingham is elevated to a status on a par with Warhol and Pollock.

Where are the better narrative painters, including Jack Levine, Jack Beal, Alfred Leslie, or Odd Nerdrum? Why hang a dreadful work by Phillip Pearlstein while sticking a better painting by Jamie Wyeth in a corner? Is Bo Bartlett really a big deal? If so, according to whom? This is a show that gets the right questions wrong.


Charles Giuliano, founder/publisher of www.berkshirefinearts.com, is an art historian and former writer/critic/editor for Art New England, The Boston Herald Traveler, Boston After Dark, The Avatar, and The Patriot Ledger. He taught at New England School of Art at Suffolk University, Boston University, Salem State University, UMass Lowell and Clark University.

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  4 Responses to “Fuse Visual Arts Review: Norman Rockwell Takes On Abstraction”

Comments (4)
  1. Dear Mr. Giuliano,

    Thank you for your interesting review of Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World at Norman Rockwell Museum. I’ll just add that the goal of the exhibition was not to provide a comprehensive overview of any particular movement or list of practitioners (which is vast), but to explore the impact of mid-century abstract painting on both the world of art and the art of illustration. I hope that if you haven’t seen the exhibition, which does feature extensive exhibition text in the form of panels and extended labels, that you’ll join us at the Museum for a walk-through – it would be a great pleasure to meet you. We’ve been enjoying very positive public response and we look forward to welcoming your readers if they are able to join us.

    Best regards,

    Stephanie Haboush Plunkett
    Deputy Director/Chief Curator
    Norman Rockwell Museum

  2. I did indeed view the exhibition and read the quotes above the works and examined labels as well.

    For a serious and ambitious exhibition it is hoped that there is a catalogue, which was not the case here.

    It is also the norm for the press kit provided to the media to contain more information.

    Most essentially it is unfortunate that there was no check list of the works on view, their dates, dimensions, and provenance.

    Instead, we had a list of their names which was less than adequate for a critic charged with making a serious evaluation of the work on view.

    The lack of media resources left the conclusion that the project, while interesting, did not meet professional standards.

    Best

    • Dear Mr. Giuliano,

      I’m sorry to hear that you did not enjoy the exhibition. Although there was no catalogue, we certainly could have provided you with more media resources beyond the digital images you asked for (such has been the case with other recent requests from “The Boston Globe” and “Art New England”). The press kits currently include our members magazine, which provides a detailed overview of the exhibition, but we will look at adding a more thorough checklist for those who prefer printed over digital materials in order to learn more.

      Jeremy Clowe
      Manager of Media Services
      Norman Rockwell Museum

  3. Some “critics” require wall text and a catalog essay before they can know what to think and say. Those are the people who see with their ears and not their eyes. They are the lightweights and can’t run with the real players. There are plenty of them out there.

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