Monday, August 16, 2010

This Blog Hits Rock(well)-Bottom With Dueling Rockwell-Art Critics

This blogger likes nothing better than witnessing (or, more accurately, witlessing) a decade's-old urological competition between two art critics. (Full disclosure: This blogger saw the traveling exhibition of Rockwelliana that was curated by Dave Hickey in the Phoenix Art Museum during its run in 2000. What this blogger was doing in the Geezer Capital of the World is another story....) If this is a (fair & balanced) replay of The Dunciad, so be it.
[Vannevar Bush Hyperlink — Bracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] Point — Art Critic Dave Hickey
[2] Counterpoint — Art Critic Jeffrey Hogrefe

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[x WQ]
Democracy's Artist
WQ's distillation of "America’s Vermeer" by Dave Hickey, in Vanity Fair (November 1999)

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Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) is often dismissed as an unimportant portrayer of an unreal small-town America, a mere illustrator whose sentimental cornball paintings are of no lasting worth. Hickey, a professor of art history, criticism, and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, strongly disagrees. Rockwell, he avers, was "the last great poet of American childhood, the Jan Vermeer of this nation’s domestic history."

Take, for instance, Rockwell’s "After the Prom," an oil painting that was reproduced as a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1957. In it, a boy in a white dinner jacket perches on a stool at a drugstore soda fountain and looks on proudly as his date on the next stool, a blonde girl in a white formal dress, lets the soda jerk smell the fragrance of her gardenia corsage, while another customer, apparently a workingman and war veteran, glances over and smiles.

"After the Prom," says Hickey, is "a fullfledged, intricately constructed, deeply knowledgeable work that recruits the total resources of European narrative picturemaking to tell the tiny tale of agape [Rockwell] has chosen to portray." The painting’s true subject, Hickey says, is not "the innocent relationship between the two young people"—that is more the occasion—but rather "the generosity of the characters’ responses, and of our own." The artist’s "prescient visual argument" was that, despite 1950s concerns about juvenile delinquents, " ‘ the kids are all right.’ "

The picture proposes "a tolerance for and faith in the young as the ground-level condition of democracy," Hickey writes. "And, strangely enough, this is probably the single aspect of Rockwell’s work that distinguishes him as a peculiarly American artist. In all other aspects, Rockwell was a profoundly European painter of the bourgeois social world in an American tradition that has almost no social painters.... Rockwell painted mercantile society, in the tradition of Frans Hals, William Hogarth, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Louis Leopold Boilly, and William Frith, but as an American he painted a society grounded not in the wisdom of its elders but in the promise of its youth."

Had "After the Prom" been a comparable European painting, Hickey says, it would have had "earthbound adult lovers surrounded and celebrated by floating infants. In Rockwell’s painting, we have floating youths surrounded and celebrated by earthbound adults. Thus, the two adults in After the Prom are invested with considerable weight. The soda jerk leans theatrically on the counter. The veteran sits heavily on his stool, leans against the counter, and rests his foot on the rail. The force of gravity is made further visible by the draped sweater on the boy’s arm and the hanging keys on the veteran’s belt, while the two young people, in their whiteness and brightness, float above the floor—in one of the most complex, achieved emblems of agape, tolerance, and youthful promise ever painted."

Even as Rockwell was painting "After the Prom," however, the Saturday Evening Post was phasing out the sort of covers he had done for the magazine since 1916, his beguiling vignettes of everyday life in America. Instead, the magazine—and Rockwell—turned in the 1960s to the pursuit of celebrities and the repetition of moral platitudes.

Rockwell finally became the illustrator he had always thought he was, says Hickey, and, sadly, he largely ceased being "the important artist he correctly believed himself to be." Yet Rockwell’s great works remain—still alive in the public consciousness and, Hickey writes, more important "than his modernist and postmodernist detractors will ever acknowledge." Ω

[Dave Hickey was a Professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (1992-2010). In the coming fall term (2010), he will be the Distinguished Professor of Criticism in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico. Hickey received a BA from Texas Christian University, a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2001. He is the author of Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1998).]

Copyright © 2000 The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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[x Forbes]
America's Vermeer?
By Jeffrey Hogrefe

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Norman Rockwell was always running into people who told him, "I don't know anything about art, but I love your paintings." Rockwell, probably the most popular illustrator of his day, used to tell his family that he wished, just once, to meet someone who claimed to know something about art and still loved his paintings. Rockwell died in 1978; if he were alive today, his wish would have been granted.

Rockwell now stands on the threshold of highbrow respectability, lionized by postmodern critics who find in his sly evocations of small town American life a direct link to Old Masters from Drer to Franz Hals.

Not everyone buys this revisionist theory of Rockwell's artistic greatness. But there is enough of a consensus to produce "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," a show of 70 paintings and 322 Saturday Evening Post covers that opened on November 6 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The exhibit, featuring holdings from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA that are united for the first time with rarely seen masterpieces from collections such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will travel around the country for two years.

"In a way, we were so close to Rockwell that we rejected his paintings out of hand as sentimental, but now we see that Rockwell was busy trying to plunge you into something deeper," says Ned Rifkin, the High Museum's director. "Rockwell asked, 'What is America?' The guy had verticality."

Dave Hickey, a potent force in academia who teaches art criticism at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, curated the show. He unabashedly calls Rockwell "the Vermeer of this nation's domestic history." The way Hickey and others in the Rockwell rehab movement see it, Rockwell's work wasn't just commenting on American life, it was also commenting on the history of art itself. Robert Rosenblum, a curator at the Guggenheim, finds references in the artist's paintings to Drer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He also notes that Rockwell made "witty allusions to Mondrian."

That kind of closed-loop, self-referential quality immediately elevates Rockwell's oeuvre by seasoning his sentimentality with the Tabasco of irony. Irony is crucial. Never forget: Rockwell was one of Andy Warhol's favorite artists.

Not everyone in the arts community is buying it. The show's organizers admit that several major museums refused to be a part of the traveling Rockwell show. But the debate over Rockwell's place in the history of art is bound to sell more tickets to the cleverly marketed show.

The real irony is that Rockwell, who was born in 1894 in New York City, didn't think too highly of his own ability as a painter of museum-quality work. The primary intent of his high-gloss, realistic paintings was to sell magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. He gave most of his pictures away to clients and never displayed any of them in his own home.

Rockwell's "witty allusions" to the greats are more likely a sincere homage by a commercial artist who takes pride in his craft but knows he's not in the same league as his real heroes. Dogged by insecurity, Rockwell moved from New York to Paris in 1923 to see if he could join Picasso and become a hero of modern art. It didn't take long for him to chuck that dream.

Training his thoughts on making a living, Rockwell settled in Stockbridge, the perfect window through which to view rural American life passing by with Stockbridge's barbershops and schoolyards as his backdrops, and it's fair to say that no one was better at it.

Still, the art establishment never tired of using Rockwell to flagellate backward-looking esthetics. It got under Rockwell's skin something fierce, and the storyteller soon found himself on a psychiatrist's couch. He would tell friends—and his shrink, no doubt—about the time he was leaving the Art Institute of Chicago when a young man, just the kind of wholesome, gangly kid Rockwell painted at soda counters and Army enlistment centers, pulled at his sleeve. "You're Norman Rockwell, aren't you?" the lad asked. "My professor thinks you are a terrible artist." Ouch.

In the end, it is Rockwell the avuncular storyteller (not Rockwell the would-be Picasso) who will enjoy a comfy couch in history's salon. Those who think of Rockwell as the mythmaker of the homespun will not be surprised to learn that fellow mythmaker Steven Spielberg is a huge fan and leading collector. Spielberg first came across Rockwell's art when he was a Boy Scout in Arizona. Now he's on the board of trustees of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Spielberg freely acknowledges Rockwell as an important influence on his movies, and it's not because of any artsy, split-nose Picasso-y effect. Rockwell's "Freedom From Fear," a painting of a mother and father tucking their son in at bedtime, makes a cameo appearance in Empire of the Sun. The director also borrowed heavily from Rockwell's wide-eyed optimistic boys when creating ET—perhaps the least ironic icon in the history of movies. Ω

[Jeffrey Hogrefe is an Adjunct Associate Professor in Humanities & Media Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is a studio critic at Parsons the New School for Design, Cooper Union, and Columbia; a contributor to Harper’s, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, New York Observer, Washington Post and Vanity Fair; and the author of O’Keeffe: The Life of An American Legend (1992), a biography focused on the artist’s rights of seclusion and personal identity politics. Hogrefe received a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright © 1999 Inc.

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