To the Editors:
Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner make a convincing case that certain academics have vastly exaggerated Norman Rockwell’s boldness and originality as an artist [“Norman Rockwell’s America,” NYR, August 10]. Much less persuasive is their contention that “the present attempt to add Rockwell to the canon of American art is almost exclusively the work of critics. It is not the artists who have adopted Rockwell, but museum directors, curators, and writers on art.” It is young artists, not museum directors, who have most eagerly looked for ways to undermine the modernist distinction between pure art and illustration during the last twenty years. Rockwell’s work is a source for many American photographers and, lately, painters interested in upending old hierarchies and in making pictures about how we read pictures. His illustrations are populist allegories, fun to parse, packed with cues for the viewer, and a nostalgic touchstone for baby boomers. His style of campy satire, when bent to reveal the dark side of American life, describes much of what is shown in contemporary art galleries these days, as well. For instance, I remember a Cindy Sherman exhibition at MetroPictures in SoHo back in the early 1990s. One of the featured attractions was a large photograph of a disgusting feast, in which the viewer has a privileged seat at the head of the table. The picture was a direct, if ironic, homage to the Thanksgiving dinner in Rockwell’s Freedom from Want.John Curran’s warped and funny paintings of late-twentieth- century life, one of the hits at this year’s Whitney Biennial, quote as jokingly from the Old Masters as did Rockwell. One can object to such work as lightweight, and as politically driven rather than aesthetically daring. But illustration has been in style throughout the art world for more than a decade, and not just in academia.
Richard B. Woodward
Southampton, New York
To the Editors:
In their acute “Norman Rockwell’s America” Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner point to the degree to which Rockwell’s work marginalizes certain categories of “ordinary people.” Until the 1960s, they write, Rockwell’s covers show “no blacks, except for an occasional dining-car waiter or porter at a railway station.” An incident concerning a cover that my late father, whose name I bear, painted for The Saturday Evening Post sheds light on the general absence of African-Americans from Rockwell’s American Main Street.
In “Norman Rockwell Painting America,” telecast last Thanksgiving eve in the PBS American Masters series, Richard Reeves related that Ben Hibbs, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, made his position about African-Americans clear to Rockwell: “Don’t put them in your paintings. It makes people uneasy.” My father learned firsthand just how uneasy the Post was made by “them.”
If you look at the cover of the Post for April 22, 1950, you will see a painting of a group of spectators in the Polo Grounds reaching for a foul ball that is soaring into the stands as a player on the field runs toward them, the ball already out of his reach. Inside the magazine, “This Week’s Cover” offers an anecdote about the problems resulting from painting Post covers a year ahead of time. This cover, we read, originally showed Sid Gordon of the Giants chasing the foul, but when the third baseman was traded to Boston, the artist “irately detached Gordon’s face and substituted the countenance of Oscar Nobody, who isn’t apt to be traded.”
When I look at that painting, I see more than you do. That’s my father, ducking as he looks anxiously up at the ball, a paper cup in one hand and a hotdog in the other; he’s wondering how to protect the Rolleiflex hanging around his neck, the same camera he used to take the photos he worked from. You can’t see the face of the girl with the beautiful bright red hair, but I recognize a portrait of my sister Lorna. And there I am too, another redhead, at eighteen, looking up in the general direction of the fly ball with the same look of dazed confusion I generally brought to my unhappy tours in left field.
But this cover is only indirectly my father’s work, and someone who ought to be in the painting is missing. As Sid Gordon’s head was “detached” and replaced by Oscar Nobody’s, so another far more significant “substitution” took place. In the painting my father delivered to the Post, the hefty man sitting in the foreground with a handkerchief over his head to protect his pate from the sun was a black woman. She was a speaking likeness of Fanny Drain, a woman who worked for my family and was much loved by all of us. When the Giants were playing, she and my father—whose studio was at home—would follow the radio broadcasts avidly and vocally; her pride and pleasure in being included in the cover painting were deep.
When my father delivered his cover to the Post offices in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, however, the editors told him that he would have to paint Fanny out of the picture. I don’t know what reason they gave; my father was too angry to recall anything but the demand and his response. He broke the painting, on a gesso panel, over his knee and walked out. The financial sacrifice was great, but he never regretted his act or repented his fury.
You can still see the portraits that remain on the cover because the Post hired Stevan Dohanos, a follower of Rockwell who did numerous Post covers, to repaint my father’s painting. The composition in the cover that ran is my father’s, the tonalities are pretty much his, and his self-portrait and the portraits of my sister and me are still easy to read. But Fanny Drain has been erased, turned into “Nobody.”
In To Renew America, Newt Gingrich celebrated an America that he appears to believe really existed as it was pictured in The Saturday Evening Post of the 1950s, and to this day a great many people share his belief. The truth is otherwise.
p class=”signature”>Austin Briggs
Professor of English Emeritus
Clinton, New York
Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner reply:
We are very grateful to have the points made in Mr. Woodward’s letter: they should have been made in our article. Let us remind the reader, however, that distinctions must be made among ways artists draw inspiration from work that lies outside the canon. Many artists in the past century have used not only illustration but commercial art and publicity to enrich their own work and to undermine the snobbish and academic distinction between high art and other forms of design. It is true that the genre of commercial and semicommercial illustration in which Rockwell worked has been an inspiration to some artists; but the references to Norman Rockwell’s illustrations by at least some of the younger artists that Mr. Woodward mentions in his very interesting letter are not attempts “to add Rockwell to the canon of American art,”or to enhance his prestige in the way the German expressionists took up the cause of El Greco early in this century. Nor are they a homage to his work like the reworkings of Ingres by Picasso, who paid tribute to his predecessor.
What Woodward cogently calls Rockwell’s “style of campy satire” is turned against him into something much harsher; these humorous or ironic citations are comparable to the inclusion of ads for vacuum cleaners in early “Pop” Art. If, in fact, Rockwell belonged to the canon of high art to which some museums are trying to assign him, he would be useless to these younger artists. It is true, however, that among today’s artists who work with carefully posed photographs—work that we only mentioned and that would have deserved further comment—there is a renewed interest in suggesting a story. This partly accounts for the fascination with Rockwell, but the work does not have the same ironic character. (In fact, it is not always clear whether the campiness of Rockwell’s amiable satire comes from him or is injected by a later generation of viewers.) What is thrown together under the label “postmodern” is a mixed bag, some of which is truly innovative, and some simply conservative and nostalgic. We may have underplayed the role of artists in the current Rockwell revival, but his canonization as a great artist in the same terms that are used for Vermeer, Picasso, or Pollock is still very much a museum project.
Other correspondents have kindly written to correct mistakes: S.B. Allen was of course right that Jeff Hall should have been Jeff Wall (this was a foolish typing error that was left, even more foolishly, uncorrected), and W.B. Neenan pointed out that the “Ladies Home Companion” must be either the Ladies Home Journal or the Women’s Home Companion. There were also some protests that Rockwell was much better than the junk that is called modern art and a claim made at very great length that he was a serious moral and political commentator on the American scene. In evoking the commercial pressures to whichRockwell and his colleagues were subjected, Mr. Briggs’s letter speaks for itself.
November 16, 2000