STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — Norman Rockwell kneels over a canvas slinging paint in every direction. Dressed in slacks and a button-up shirt, the artist famous for depicting Hometown, USA, is now trying his hand at Abstract Expressionism. He’s painting “The Connoisseur” (1961), a rebuttal to the newer American art he understood to be replacing his. “If I were young,” he admitted, “I would paint that way myself.” Willem de Kooning admired the illustrator’s dip into abstraction, once commenting: “Square inch by square inch, it’s better than a Jackson!” But it didn’t alter Rockwell’s course. “My ability evidently lies in telling stories,” he said, “and modern art doesn’t go in much for that sort of thing.”
This statement is offered and taken at face value in Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World, the current exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum. “The Connoisseur” serves as both introduction and centerpiece for the show, which “examine[s] the forces that forged the mid-century dismissal of narrative and illustration, as well as the resurgence of realist painting during the latter half of the twentieth century.” Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett brought together pieces by over 50 artists, nearly all male. Works by deceased artists — Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, etc. — are mostly on paper. An exception is also the best; Alice Neel’s canvas “John and Joey Priestly” (1968) hangs on its own wall at the end of the show, rightly, as a singular work.
The ambition of Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World is inversely related to its clarity. Why, for example, is Andrew Wyeth put in the “Pop and Photorealism” section? The success of his work predates these genres and Abstract Expressionism itself. Why does the show conclude with Neel’s “realist” piece, which is dated 20 years before a Robert Motherwell abstraction, “Nocturne 1” (1988), hanging in the first room? Curatorial confusion becomes the exhibition’s most compelling feature. But what did happen to Norman Rockwell’s influence as an illustrator of American life?
The artist was correct that his abilities lie in telling stories; but he was mistaken that US modern art doesn’t “go in” for storytelling. Rockwell (1894–1978) moved to Vermont and started painting small-town American life in 1939, the year World War II broke. It was also the year Clement Greenberg (briefly mentioned in the show) published “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” an essay defining the role of “advanced” art in terms of economic class and politics. In it, he likened Rockwell and his Saturday Evening Post covers to Russian realist Ilya Repin as a maker of images easily consumed by “peasants” who haven’t the time nor capacity for “reflective” pleasures provided by Pablo Picasso, a less readable artist. In contrast to “kitsch,” Greenberg espoused a new art, with a new story, one above crass consumption and politics.
Rockwell’s narrative art of national pride and Middle American wholesomeness became likened — by intellectual progressives — to Russian realism and, by extension, the state-regulated production of propaganda. Greenberg’s new art stood in perfect contrast to images depicting loyal Soviet subjects; it was an art stripped of all imagery and social obligations. As Rockwell and his audiences saw their America in pictures such as “Freedom of Speech,” from 1943, the American avant-garde was attacking the possibility of “pictures” themselves.
In 1943, Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb wrote in the New York Times of their intent to “insult” those attuned to “pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantle; pictures of the American scene; social pictures.” De Kooning was always more open-minded: “Whatever an artist’s personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical.” Thus, personal expression free of outside conformities became a necessary condition for true art. Even dissent was vital. As Rockwell put it, “A fine arts painter has to satisfy only himself … the illustrator must satisfy his client as well as himself.” This form of freedom, to be an autonomous agent acting without restraints, was America’s new artistic character. Artwork of this sort became a protagonist in a larger story told by more powerful forces than Greenberg.
The CIA and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) were allies promoting Abstract Expressionism in Europe. As Eva Cockcroft argued in her Artforum article “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War” (June 1974), the success of Abstract Expressionism was essential for Cold War propaganda. The aim was not only to make the US, and New York City in particular, the world’s leading cultural center (rather than Paris); it was to attract foreign intellectuals to “American” freedom, in contrast to the culture of a controlling communist bloc. Rockwell’s audience was populist and American. The audience for Abstract Expressionism, as co-opted for covert messaging, was a foreign elite tempted by communist philosophies.
Exhibition programming was the primary method of attack, exporting the art of Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, et al. overseas. In 1954, for example, MoMA bought the US pavilion in Venice, determining through successive Venice Biennales what American art “is” to the world. (It was the first time in the Biennale’s history that a national pavilion was not run by a national government.) MoMA distances itself from allegations of conspiracy, but does not forcefully reject them either. Frances Stonor Saunders’s 1995 piece “Modern art was a CIA ‘weapon’” in the Independent recounts the story, focusing on the CIA and quoting former CIA operative Thomas Braden as boasting: “Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!”
Norman Rockwell in an Abstract World is a sampler of post-war US art, rather than an expositor. The “resurgence of realist painting” it posits is unconvincing when considering that representational art after Abstract Expressionism largely lacks explicit narrative, even in the work of Rockwell’s inheritors such as Bo Bartlett, who is self-consciously surreal. The work of illustrator Marshall Arisman, who dominates the exhibition’s last room with about 10 pieces, is “conceptual rather than narrative,” according to wall text. Finally, the decline of Rockwell’s popularity cannot be blamed solely on “his predilection for visual storytelling,” as the curator suggests. It was, instead, the content of his stories. Covers of The New Yorker have narrated life for over 90 years; but they depict the lives urban elites, the “connoisseurs” themselves. It was Rockwell’s people who got eclipsed.
The Norman Rockwell Museum’s exhibition is one to ponder. It is far more curious and provocative than it intended to be; or, as critic and “realist” painter Fairfield Porter wrote of MoMA’s exhibition New Images of Man in 1959, it “is forced, and therefore interesting.”