by James Harrington | March 23, 2018
On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had a very pleasant surprise. Walking through Modern and Contemporary Art, where I find little that is very compelling for me, I came upon what seemed an incongruous image. I was walking with colleagues who are all art teachers, and I think we spotted it at about the same time. Several of us walked up to it quickly, and with some disbelief. Before us hung Norman Rockwell’s Expressman.
We were delighted to see it and quite surprised that the august Metropolitan Museum of Art not only collected a Rockwell, but hung it! This is partly due to the museums ongoing re-hanging of its Modern galleries along thematic lines. Rockwell is hung in a room with the theme of “Work and Industry.” The Rockwell is thematically ideal. But there are other signs that Rockwell is being reassessed. The New-York Historical Society is having an exhibit next summer that focuses on Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. Rockwell is beginning to be treated as a museum class fine artist and not someone whose work is relegated to collections of American illustration.
Rockwell is the guilty pleasure of many realist painters. We love him, but are well accustomed to the condescension with which his work is regarded in the art world where being called an illustrator is a put-down. Ironically, in the commercial art world, being called a fine artist is also a slight. (Insiders’ joke: What’s the difference between a fine artist and an illustrator? An illustrator can draw). Woe to those of us who have a foot in both worlds. Rockwell’s work also occupies that grey zone, not typical illustration, nor quite fine art.
His work for the Saturday Evening Post rarely illustrated someone else’s text; they were stand-alone narrative images largely representing Rockwell’s unique vision. From the point of view that defines illustration as images that serve and expand on text, Rockwell’s work is atypical. In the sense that his work was created for printed reproduction to help sell a magazine, his work is typical illustration. It is a slippery slope to get into definitions of illustration. Some argue that the Sistine Chapel could be called illustration, or any image that in based on the Bible.
Rockwell’s paintings evolved over the decades from light humorous scenes portraying an idealized glimpse of American life in the first half of the twentieth century, to the grim realities of the Civil Rights era. Most of his paintings were meant to entertain, and occasionally to provoke thought and emotion. Some of the paintings capture the prevailing culture of the period in its negative aspects such as the smiling, somewhat subservient portrayal of an African American in The Pullman Porter who waits upon a little white boy. Rockwell was portraying a contemporary reality, though apparently missing the larger social implications. The Saturday Evening Post certainly restricted the way in which Rockwell could portray African Americans, when he was permitted to at all. In that sense he was certainly a commercial artist with a client to please, but isn’t that true for a great deal of the art we see in museums? Artists operate in a marketplace. Rockwell’s illustrated world was mostly that of white America until the last decades of his career. His The Problem We All Live With (1964) and Southern Justice (1965) demonstrated the evolution of Rockwell as an American artist with a keen social conscience. I would like to see the Metropolitan Museum add some of those later works to their collection.
Many of the slights against our modern sensibilities we encounter in his work are true reflections of American culture in the twentieth century. Seeing the Saturday Evening Post cover of Two Flirts from July 1941 where two truck driver’s “flirt” with a pretty woman in a convertible who is pulled up along side their truck can only be seen today as sexual harassment. The humor is completely drained from that illustration, though the composition is still terrific. But doesn’t art reflect its cultural context? We may see the images differently today, but should we purge art of all content that offends modern sensibilities? I don’t think many would argue that. William Sidney Mount’s Power of Music, as well as many other paintings hung in museums, could also be interpreted as being offensive through a contemporary lens. Think of the equivalent argument in American literature around Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The parts of art that we may be uncomfortable with today are nevertheless true reflections of the society of their day. Does it serve art well to suppress those works, or is there value in keeping them part of our cultural conversation?
Few of Rockwell’s pieces fall into that problematic category anyway. Most of Rockwell’s work is rich in charm; some will say too much charm. Is Rockwell just too light for the serious world of fine art? Art has plenty of room for humor when it also delves into the touchstones of the human experience that bind us all together. Adriaen Brouwer, Jan Steen, and many genre painters have humor in their work. How about the Met’s The Innocent Eye Test by Mark Tansey? Charm and humor shouldn’t exclude paintings as art. The commercial aspect of Rockwell’s work shouldn’t be distasteful except to those completely ignorant of art history.
Recent art has far less straightforward narrative than earlier centuries, but don’t we all have an instinctive interest in a story? It makes it easier to connect with an image. Is Rockwell too popular? Sort of the way that the Impressionist masters’ art is a bit degraded by its presence on too many calendars, tote bags, and scarves? We have an instinctive distaste for things that are too popular. We like our art to be a bit exclusive. Do you want your plumber to like the same art you go museums and galleries to see? Perhaps, you are a snob. Yet, many modern realists are snobs too. We worship artists who are master technicians, and you know, Rockwell is a damn good. We look down on those who eschew the finer skills of drawing naturalistically for an emphasis on the conceptual or more expressive. God, the art world is full of snobs. We are fractured into aesthetic camps intolerant of the slightest variation from each group’s accepted orthodoxy. We could use a painter with a sense of humor.
That is why it is so refreshing to encounter Expressman in the Modern Wing at the Met. A drowsy mailman takes a nap sitting on a steamer trunk marked for “rush” delivery, a suitcase under his right arm barely propping him upright in a neat pyramidal composition. The thermometer behind him indicates it’s a hot day, and the man is so inactive that a live chicken rests undisturbed by his side. A flyswatter rests across his lap adding not only narrative detail but also linear movement to Rockwell’s reliably brilliant design. It’s simple humor, the expressman who is in no rush. It’s delightful, and by the way, incredibly well-painted. We could argue about his taste, but Rockwell is certainly a modern American master.
I would like to see the Met use “American Genre” as one of their thematic categories in their arrangement of modern and contemporary art. Wouldn’t it be an interesting juxtaposition to have Rockwell’s work side-by-side with the work of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper? I love Wyeth, but I think Rockwell’s work would wordlessly tell me far more about twentieth-century America. There would be days when I would prefer either over the other. Life is a spectrum of experiences, and I’m glad that Rockwell is there to fill in part of that spectrum. The same could be said of the work in the Modern Wing at the Met. I am glad Rockwell is there to fill out part of the modern experience.