In order to enter the exhibition space of American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the North Carolina Museum of Art, you have to pass through a gallery with no pictures at all, a blank-slate antechamber whose walls are inscribed with a Google search's worth of quotes about the artist, adding up to a textual cacophony of raging opinion:
"Our Dagwood Bumstead of art," "widely loved," "homelier than apple pie," "the Holbein of Jell-O ads," "ranked among the Old Masters."
As one passes through this imprinted din, it is hard to imagine there was a time when no one debated the artist who gave us that indelible (and insidious) Thanksgiving painting, "Freedom From Want" (1943). In 1916, when The Saturday Evening Post ran his first cover illustration, "Boy With Baby Carriage," few could have predicted that it would be the first of a decades-long succession of tableaux so ubiquitous, so familiar, so penetrating into the popular psyche that just the name Norman Rockwell would become synonymous with a scruffy-but-idyllic, scrappy, peculiarly American mythos.
And then there's the repeated objection to his work: Rockwell's America was notably devoid of people of color, societal upheaval or any other motifs that might conflict with an idealized domesticity, one that would spill like warm cocoa across an imaginary map of the United States and confer upon the culture a poignant brand of nostalgic hominess.
The NCMA did well to include those quotes at the exhibition's entrance. They set a tone of inquiry (as opposed to awe) and encourage all of us to draw our own conclusions about the work. The one surprise for me about American Chronicles was its culmination in two paintings that Rockwell did in the 1960s. By then he'd made his fortune (and been through 10 years of therapy with Erik Erikson, the renowned psychologist and psychoanalyst credited with coining the phrase "identity crisis"). It is unclear if Rockwell had harbored egalitarian values all along—even as he conformed to contemporary expectations by relegating people of color to positions of servitude in his illustrations—or if he later had a moment of clarity. Regardless, his lifetime of Americana only makes these late works of social criticism more stunning.
"The Problem We All Live With" (1963) frames a small African-American girl walking in profile, flanked by the outsized and faceless bodies of men with gripped fists as she makes her way to school. A racial epithet is scrawled on the wall behind her, and the blood-red splatter of a hurled tomato drips down the wall to the ground. In "Murder in Mississippi" (1965), one man holds the collapsing, bullet-ridden body of another against a dark, desolate landscape as he stares down shadows of an angry mob. Another figure lies on the ground, face-down, motionless. I never thought I'd describe a Rockwell painting as a sober testament of social conscience that unflinchingly depicts racist America. And yet it is.
And yet, these works tell me something new about Rockwell the man. They don't rewrite him as an artist. Despite his undisputed prowess as a painter and his capacity to appropriate and mimic Old Master techniques, there is no revelation in viewing his work writ large. I mean no disparagement when I say that Rockwell is an illustrator par excellence. The work rendered in its intended Saturday Evening Post scale and framed by the magazine's signature black-and-white graphics is ultimately its most realized version. I noted with interest that the exhibition catalog offers almost no visual references to the magazine, a move perhaps meant to reinscribe the artist into art history as a capital-P Painter.
Is it coincidence, or commentary, that on the same floor as American Chronicles we find the work of another great American illustrator, John James Audubon, and a room that features three illustrators of children's books: Eric Carle, Arnold Lobel and Ashley Bryan? Two other shows currently on view also serve as dynamic counterpoints to American Chronicles. One features sculpture by North Carolina artist Bob Trotman, whose gravity-defying wooden figures of people floating in dreamlike suspension greet you at the museum's entrance. These neutral-toned protagonists riff on Rockwell's normalcy—everyday folks who've somehow pierced the veil and grapple with a decidedly non-normal, post-gravitational experience.
Finally, we come to Binh Danh's devastating mementos mori, two separate series that incorporate found archival photographs depicting traces of genocide in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Danh's chlorophyll prints reveal the faces of victims, photographed by the Khmer Rouge before they were executed—a glimpse of fleeting, incomprehensible grace imprinted on the impossibly fragile surface of pressed leaves. Danh's other series of daguerreotypes also depicts archival portraits, as well as images from Angkor Wat. These prints are done on highly silvered surfaces, so when we look at these faces we also see our own.
On a recent press tour through American Chronicles, John Coffey, the museum's deputy director of art, spoke candidly of Rockwell's "sins of omission," the narrow lens through which he viewed and constructed his particular Saturday Evening Post version of America. If Rockwell committed such sins, it is safe to say that Danh has committed acts of compassionate and conscious inclusion as remembrance, as meditation, as art of the highest order.
[Click Page 2 or Full Text for "The Rockwell wars: Five decades of critical division"]
The Rockwell wars: Five decades of critical division
... the Rembrandt of Punkin' Crick. —John Canaday, art critic, 1972
... the Lawrence Welk of the world of art. —Allison R. Ensor, cultural historian, 1984
... a sort of pictorial Mark Twain. —Alden Hatch, writer, 1979
Our Dagwood Bumstead of art, Rockwell has always been the perfect homely barometer of national self-identity. —Michael Kimmelman, art critic, 2001
Steeped in the history and rhetoric of Western painting, Rockwell was a visual storyteller of genius. More than that, he was a story-maker, a bard. He didn't illustrate Middle America. He invented Middle America. —Peter Schjeldahl, art critic, 1999
Even the most brittle cynics melt in the presence of all that wholesomeness. —Robert A.M. Stern, architect
It was television, not modern art, that did Rockwell in. —Peter Plagens, art critic, 1999
What [the public] wanted was a friendly world, far from calamities of history, shielded from doubt and fear, set down in detail, painted as an honest grocer weighs ham, slice by slice, nothing skimped; and Norman Rockwell gave it to them for sixty years. —Robert Hughes, art critic, 1978
Norman Rockwell was homelier than apple pie, more American than the flag, gentler and more affirmative than Dad, and that was what the American public in the early 1950s wanted. —Hughes, 1997
What'd you do, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting? —Woody Allen to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977
His pictures, idealized as they are, remind us that the American ideal wasn't always a matter of bling, great rooms, "home theaters," and other hallmarks of modern American schmuckdom. That's one of the big things that jumps out from his paintings: the utter lack of affluence depicted in them. Another thing: an emphasis, over and over again, on community. —David Kamp, writer, 2009
[Rockwell] saw an America of such pride and self-worth. My vision is very similar to his, for the most part because of him. —Steven Spielberg, filmmaker, 1993
The artist always seems to be selling something, be it optimism during a time of hardship, patriotism in wartime, or any number of products for which he created seductive illustrations for magazine advertisements. —Benjamin Genocchio, writer, 2009
Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality. —Spielberg, 1999
[Salvador] Dalí is really Norman Rockwell's twin brother kidnapped by Gypsies in babyhood. —Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin, 1957
Rockwell is terrific. It's become too tedious to pretend he isn't. —Schjeldahl, 1999
Rockwell fills his apparently mayonnaise world with dark and disturbing details which he then dares the viewer to acknowledge. —Richard Halpern, cultural historian, 2006
Rockwell's paintings ... are able to induce a kind of hysterical blindness in many viewers, who can't or won't see what is staring them in the face. —Halpern, 2006
I dreamed of Norman Rockwell paintings when I was a child. I thought they were a wonderful fantasyland. Or heaven—if I died, that's where I'd go, to a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving or Christmas. —Orson Scott Card, Treasure Box, 1996
Right away, I got in trouble with the art department faculty. One day a professor asked us to name our favorite modern artist. I said mine was Norman Rockwell. —Patrick F. McManus, How I Got This Way, 1994
Were they horrific, these heavens? Or were they the stuff I dreamed about? Where you could be caught in a Norman Rockwell world forever. Turkey constantly being brought to a table full of family. —Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones, 2002
... the Brueghel of the twentieth-century bourgeoisie, the Holbein of Jell-O ads and magazine covers; by common assent, the most American artist of all. —Jerry Adler, art critic, 1993
Rockwell, his style, and even his name have come to embody the very antithesis of what is modern about America in this century. —Ned Rifkin, museum director, 1999
Between the audience and reality, he interposed a vaudeville act of cute exaggeration and folksy shuffles, and it really is impossible not to like him. His success was his failure. —Arthur Danto, art critic, 1986
Art history for snobbish reasons has always been suspicious of artists considered to be popularizers—especially successful artists. —Thomas Hoving, museum director and art writer, 1999
Norman Rockwell's great achievement was ... investing the everyday activities of ordinary people with a sense of historical consequence. —Dave Hickey, art critic, 1999
A vote for Norman Rockwell is a vote for the real America. —Wright Morris, writer, 1957
It is important to keep in mind that a Rockwell cover image was designed and used to sell three things to a newly defined public: the magazine itself, the goods advertised inside the magazine, and perhaps most important, a vision of who we are and how we should be Americans. —Anne Knutson, curator, 1999
Rockwell's art was both a model of excellence and a blueprint for cliché. —Steven Heller, cultural critic, 1999
Rockwell's work may become an indispensible part of art history. The sneering, puritanical condescension with which he was once viewed by serious art lovers can swiftly be turned to pleasure. To enjoy his unique genius, all you have to do is relax. —Robert Rosenblum, art historian, 1999
Rockwell's illustrations achieved their impact because they touched on deep-rooted anxieties. —Henry Adams, art historian, 2002
Widely loved like no other painter in America, yet despised in high-art circles, Rockwell pushed on, into canvases that almost transcend their folksy, crowd-pleasing subjects. —John Updike, writer
[Rockwell] will not live in the history of art, but as a witness to a certain view of America ... he was the right man in the right place at the right time. —John Russell, art critic, 1978
Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity. Embracing him uncritically is the esthetic equivalent of casual Friday. —Jerry Saltz, art critic, 2001
Rockwell, Mr. Sentimentality, is the perfect symbol of our times. —Deborah Solomon, art writer, 1999
Rockwell shares with Dickens a luminous devotion to the possibility of domestic kindness and social accord. —Hickey, 1999
Rockwell's world is illuminated by a crisp, clean light that brooks no ambiguity. It is the light of the True Believers. Those of us who value doubt must look elsewhere. —Bob Trotman, artist, 2010
When I was much younger I appreciated his work. I remember getting a book of his for Christmas. Then I went to college and I adopted a different view; he was far too mainstream to be of any substance. I turned back around when I saw his work in person. The skill level is so high. Like him or hate him, he summed up something about the country at the time. He was very American—you would never mistake him for a European genre painter. —Tim Purus, artist, 2010
Norman Rockwell paints the American scene to the delight of millions of us. —Edward R. Murrow, television journalist, 1959
The enormous prices in recent years for what Rockwell's harshest critics deem to be mere illustrations suggest that art collectors are thirsty to mine a "new" ore, which in this case also happens to come with a hefty dose of sentiment and national pride. —Mindy Moak, art dealer, 2010
Rockwell will be ranked among the Old Masters as he is already firmly wedged in humble hearts and minds. —Paul M. Johnson, historian, 1998
To see oneself in Rockwell's paintings is a simple objective. We all identify with family and nation. To immerse oneself in the bare, raw human moment of knowing your aspirations and darkest proclivities ... Rockwell's paintings are, perhaps, one of the greatest creative conceits of twentieth-century narrative painting. —Mark Leach, curator, 2010
The complete collection of opinions on Rockwell can also be found at the American Chronicles exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art.