Finally, a Rockwell Thanksgiving

Posted: Nov 20, 2001 12:00 AM
The ninth inning comeback now occurring in New York City is even more improbable than those the Yankees and Diamondbacks pulled off in the World Series early this month. Manhattan's artists, students and critics are flocking to the Guggenheim Museum, a shrine to abstract art, and giving thanks for an exhibit, 23 years after his death, of the 20th century American painter most despised by the modern art establishment. "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" has already been on national tour for almost two years, but only now, as journalists wonder whether the Sept. 11 events have changed the way we look at America, is the exhibit confronting the arts cognoscenti on their own turf. Listen to the grudging admission of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman: "Nowadays, in our flag-shrouded anxiety, the cornball sentiments ... seem less remote and contrived than they did before Sept. 11. (A Rockwell painting) can make you gulp despite yourself." How striking is that acknowledgement? It's been 29 years since a Rockwell exhibit came within spitting range of the Times -- the Brooklyn Museum had one in 1972 -- and at that time John Canaday, the newspaper's art critic, viciously denounced it. Canaday closed with a description of what a pleasure it was to "shoulder my way back to the (Times Square) office through the crowds of pimps, prostitutes and perverts." The virtuous Americans Rockwell painted gave Canaday the heebie-jeebies, but Manhattan's "Midnight Cowboy" denizens had the right stuff. For decades, Rockwell produced the much-loved paintings that launched a thousand sneers among the lords of the painted word: to them, Rockwell was the "Rembrandt of Punkin Creek," the "prophet of mindlessness," the kitschmeister of "Gee-Gosh-Shuckism." Art critic Deborah Solomon, who is writing a biography of Rockwell, notes that: "As far as the modernists were concerned, Rockwell did everything wrong. ... He was well-read, but he didn't read Sartre. ... He had a vast following. He made money. He didn't wear black turtlenecks. These were all no-nos to people who defined themselves by their alienation from American life." But what a difference several decades and a terrorist attack makes. For next Tuesday, Nov. 27, the Guggenheim has even scheduled a panel discussion titled "A Love Affair: Contemporary Artists on Norman Rockwell." The list of smitten discussants includes artists such as John Currin, painter of bizarre female nudes. Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News concluded: "It's OK to like Norman Rockwell. Really. More important, it's even OK to admit it in polite society." Even more: Some contemporary artists see Rockwell's traditional values as cutting edge. Since insurance companies now run television commercials praising the "coming out" of homosexuals, one of the most rare and shocking things around is a committed, long-term husband-wife relationship. And what about a family Thanksgiving dinner? Weird -- which means that a painter who depicts one is far out, and that's almost in. Artists and critics are also belatedly appreciating Rockwell's emphasis on fine detail and the careful use of light; comparisons to Vermeer are now common. Rockwell's technique certainly is realistic, but those who say Rockwell's depiction of everyday life was realistic are in one sense as wrong as the disparagers of a generation ago. Rockwell painted not life around him but an idealized life, a heavenly earth where small town lions were lying down with lambs. Rockwell depicted not life around him but life in a new Eden, where failures are forgotten and bitterness banished, where sly humor is relished but sarcasm avoided, where minds are at ease, hearts are never diseased and cancer cannot be. Museum-goers are loving that optimistic vision. Rockwell rocks at a time when tucking kids into bed has moved from everydayness to victory. He's the right artist for a time when more people understand that even if there has been frustration at work, every day without terrorism is a good day. Finally, Rockwell rocks -- even for New Yorkers