Rethinking Rockwell ; A Popular Magazine Illustrator Is Winning New Respect from Museums and Critics

Article excerpt

Norman Rockwell exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum! It sounds so crazy," says art historian Robert Rosenblum.

His statement reflects the art establishment's bewilderment that Rockwell (1894-1978), a painter often thought of as a corny, sentimental illustrator of magazine covers, is about to be exhibited at a number of high-brow art institutions that tend to ally themselves more with cutting-edge contemporary art than Rockwell's nostalgic, idealized images of small-town America.

So why this exhibition - and why now?

"This is an extremely [economically] feasible show," says Peter Plaegens, an art critic for Newsweek magazine. "People will come in droves, and the museums that take Rockwell will sell a lot of tickets, as well as a lot of T-shirts, posters, and other collateral items.

"There is a built-in hipness about liking Rockwell. It goes against the orthodoxy of Modernism. You see people slicking their hair back into pompadours; it's all very retro," Mr. Plaegens says.

The traveling exhibition, "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," will debut at Atlanta's High Museum Nov. 6 and make its final stop at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001.

The seven-city tour also includes Chicago, Washington, San Diego, Phoenix, and Stockbridge, Mass. This is the first retrospective of Rockwell since a 1972 exhibition sponsored by the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Museum of Art. That show received reviews that ranged from lukewarm to thumbs-down.

Ironically, it was an art critic who got the ball rolling. "I think it was three years ago, I happened to stumble into Stockbridge, Mass., and went to the Rockwell museum," Mr. Rosenblum says. "I was totally riveted by the paintings. He struck me as a fabulously interesting artist, who really knew how to put a picture together."

Both Plaegens and Rosenblum have said that the experience of looking at Rockwell's actual paintings, rather than at reproductions of them, made them more sympathetic to the artist. Rosenblum then recommended the idea of a touring retrospective to Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim.

The result of his efforts is a sizable retrospective, consisting of 70 original oil paintings. The most famous are "The Four Freedoms" ("Freedom of Speech," "Freedom to Worship," "Freedom From Want," "Freedom From Fear), "Triple Self-Portrait," "The Marriage License," and "Shuffleton's Barbershop." Also included are all 322 of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. The works cover 60 years of his career and date back to 1916.

Collectors cash in

Though art critics might have been slow to catch on, the market for Rockwells and illustration art in general has been expanding steadily with rising prices. Judy Goffman, an illustration art dealer, says that auction houses are now wooing the owners of Rockwells, creating a competition with the private dealers who traditionally have handled the sale of these works. "Whenever a Rockwell comes up for sale now, the owners all tell me what Christie's and Sotheby's say they can get for it," Ms. Goffman says.

Because Rockwell made numerous preliminary drawings, there may be different prices for oil sketches, watercolors, and pastels - all for the same image. Rockwell's full-size paintings have exceeded half a million dollars at some auctions.

Plaegens said that it is time for "a reevaluation, or maybe just an evaluation, of Rockwell" by an art world that has long dismissed him.

Some of that reevaluation has begun in academia, says Anne Knutson, guest curator at the High Museum. She wrote her dissertation on illustration and World War I propaganda. …