Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paper on Rockwell

Here is my March 2009 paper on Norman Rockwell. I originally intended to compare him to a few other artists and even read books on those painters but ultimately felt it was best to stay simple.... I've learned from a few past papers that it makes for a bigger headache to try to say too much with 1500 words. 

Norman Rockwell and Disavowal


My opinion of Norman Rockwell, until very recently, has been a mixed one. I have always appreciated his amazing ability for visual storytelling and his exceptional talents as an illustrator- particularly the subtle ways in which he stylizes his figures to achieve the maximum nostalgic appeal. On the other hand, his art is one that I often find too accessible. Anyone can understand a Rockwell painting, which is the great predicament of his work. No one was better in making art for the masses, but its commercial nature detaches it from the level of “high art”, or at least that has been the case. At times, I have often felt put off by the sentimental and kitschy nature of his paintings, even while simultaneously admiring his technical achievements.


It came then as a both a great compliment and a frustration to find Rockwell’s name come up so often in connection with my work. In using 50s reference images and balancing the borderline of nostalgia, his works are understandably unavoidable. Five months ago I reluctantly wrote a paper on Norman Rockwell to appease the constant comparisons. It was a frustrating exercise in that every book I looked at reinforced the opinion that Rockwell’s paintings speak only at the shallow nostalgic level. Looking at his paintings left me with a strong desire to purge narrative from my work completely. It was only after writing that paper that I was referred to a controversial new book and current swell of new appreciation for Rockwell that’s gaining momentum today.


Since he remains so essential to the work I’m trying to do, I’ve decided to give Rockwell another chance by looking deeper into who he was and what he means to my work. In his book “The Underside of Innocence”, author Richard Halpern discusses the innocence found in the works of Norman Rockwell as an act of “disavowal”. He borrows the term from Freud, who in his writings on psychoanalysis wrote that disavowal is one of several ways of suppressing something unbearable. In Freudian terms, disavowal is different than repression or denial, or simply banishing unwanted knowledge all together. To disavow something is to simultaneously know and not know something. It involves a splitting of the self. For Halpern, this is the way to approach the works of Norman Rockwell. “Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not the innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing” (Halpern 6).


It goes without saying that this new theory of Rockwell is controversial. Rockwell’s middlebrow admirers have always loved his work in part because it looks wistfully toward the past. It both partakes of and contributes to the myth that the world was a simpler, happier place than now. Rockwell was obviously intentional in doing this, but he was also much more clever than we give him credit for, and his work is filled with nuances that are easily looked over.


A great example of Rockwell’s deliberate trickery is “The Art Critic” from 1955. In the painting, a young art student in an art museum holds an easel and paints as he leans forward to investigate a painting of a baroque woman, who humorously leers back at him with a raised eyebrow and strange grin. It’s a painting that anyone would find funny for the way the painting interacts with the art student. The picture takes on a completely new meaning when it’s discovered that the boy in the picture is Rockwell’s son Jarvis, and the woman is Rockwell’s wife Mary. In short, the entire painting is an Oedipal joke- one that his family found embarrassing.

In the painting, the young art student gazes through the magnifying glass at a broach on the bosom of the woman, the same broach the mythological Oedipus used to gouge his eyes out upon learning of his despicable actions. A group of men in the painting on the adjacent wall smirk at him in disgust. Through it all, the art student is unfazed, completely unaware of what he is doing. Jarvis Rockwell later recalled, “My father made it very plain that the sexual joke was important to the painting” (Halpern 86). It’s clear from Rockwell’s writings and the work itself that he delighted in playing jokes and in hiding things in plain sight, especially on the magazine covers read by millions. Not all of Rockwell’s jokes are sexual. Uncertain of his place in the art world, Rockwell often makes distinct references to traditional themes in the history of art, which the Oedipus complex of “The Art Critic” also demonstrates.


To the untrained eye, Rockwell’s work is all about innocence. Rockwell knew as good as anyone that innocence is a commodity, a fact he makes known in his book through frequently disclosing how well he was paid. “Rockwell and others such as Walt Disney purveyed a view of American culture that was patriotic, optimistic, and imbued with middle-class values, secure in the virtuousness and rightness of the American way” (Halpern 8). For generations of Americans Rockwell symbolizes a better time when life was simple. He also remains the poster boy for American conservativism. In reality, he was a progressive thinker who often felt stifled in his limitations as a commercial artist. The Saturday Evening Post didn’t allow him to place African Americans on the cover except for rare instances. Only near the end of his life when he was painting for himself did he tackle issues such as racism head-on in his work. 


As a well-paid illustrator, Rockwell understood the commodity of innocence and had personal reasons to value it. Rockwell battled feelings of inadequacy his entire life. As a young man, he was gangly and unatheletic, constantly made fun of for his beanpole frame and large Adam’s apple. Throughout his career, even at the height of his popularity, he was banished by the art world for being a commercial illustrator. “That is the essential paradox of Rockwell’s life: he was America’s best-loved and most famous artist but, according to the gatekeepers of the institutional world of art, he wasn’t an artist at all” (Marling 7). These deep-seeded insecurities translated into opposite themes in his paintings; scenes of nostalgic innocence and great humor. There were episodes from Rockwell’s childhood that profoundly shaped his views on innocence and idealism. In his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator”, Rockwell relates a powerful memory from his boyhood in New York City, which continues to haunt him even as an old man:


“The memory is of a vacant lot in the yellow light of late afternoon, and a drunken woman in filthy gray rags following a man and beating him over the head with an umbrella. The man stumbling through the coarse littered grass, his arms raised to cover his head, and the woman cursing and screaming, beating him incessantly until he fell, then standing over him, kicking and striking him again and again about the head and belly and legs. And I remember that we kids watched, silent, from the edges of the lot, until a policeman ran up and grabbed the woman. The man got slowly up and seeing the policeman struggling with the woman, attacked him, swinging drunkenly and swearing. Against this image of the city, exaggerated and distorted as it is, I have never been able to rid myself of it entirely” (Rockwell 31).


It was with deep personal insecurities and doubts about potential for the world that Rockwell made images for the masses. Understanding his viewpoint is helpful in understanding his work. The big question remains: how can I use the example of Rockwell’s work in my own? Having researched this new approach to Rockwell, the topic of disavowal is something I am deeply interested in. I’ve always been aware of the duality in my subject matter, and Rockwell’s use of hiding things in plain sight is intriguing to me. I do not aspire to make Rockwellian paintings that so blatantly grasp nostalgia, but I do see commonalities with his work.


If disavowal is simultaneously knowing and not knowing something, I think it’s a proper context to explain how my work functions and a good concept to push in future work. When the viewer encounters my paintings, they know the images on a surface level. With 50s images, there is an undeniable nostalgia that resonates with people, regardless of age and experience. The viewer can understand scenes of families and resonate with the collective idealized American memory of post-war America. Also inherent in the imagery is the reality behind 50s optimism or the “not knowing” of disavowal- the absence of diversity, the differences in family dynamics and domestic roles, and the presence of constant cold war fear. These are a few of the many aspects to the period that get glazed over by idealism. When I confront old photographs of unknown people, I’m interested in who they are behind the veneer. I’d like to think that the viewer is also confronted with this question. I’m also interested in making my painting accessible and visually alluring in a way that speaks to idealism while at the same time saying more. Merely consuming an image- as opposed to confronting it- is what allows disavowal to do its work.


Richard Halpern sums up Rockwell best: “If disavowal bespeaks an inability to bear complication, and if it reacts to its discomfort by splitting and idealizing its subjects, then Rockwell’s lessons about disavowal can never be grasped unless we are willing to see this artist for the complex creature he is: a wholesome pervert, a knowing innocent, and a kitschy genius” (Halpern 52). Rockwell’s work and the concept of disavowal has taught me that I can be more deliberate about introducing those undercurrents to my work. The trick then becomes doing so without tuning the painting into an overly accessible Rockwellian narrative. And so, the work continues.



Works Cited:


Halpern, Richard. “Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence”. The University of      Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 2006.

Hennessey, Maureen Hart and Anne Knutson. “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the             American People”. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.

Marling, Karal Ann. “Rockwell: Americas Most Loved Painter”. Taschen, Köln, 2005.

Rockwell, Norman. “My Adventures as an Illustrator”. Henry N. Abrams, New York.        1988

Friday, February 20, 2009

ROCKWELL-"The Underside of Innocence"

I've just finished reading a fascinating little book on Norman Rockwell. His name is one that has often come up in connection with my work in critiques. No other artist embodies Americana and nostalgia like Norman Rockwell. For his entire life, he struggled to reconcile his place in the art world and his role as an illustrator. His work was so counter to everything that was happening in the Modern Art establishment that he wasn't even considered a real artist, even though his skills for visual story telling are second to none. Today, there is a new found appreciation for his work and his paintings. In particular, there is a realization that he was a lot smarter than we give him credit for.

case in point: Here's "The Art Critic" from the 1950s. Depicted is a young art student at the museum, closely inspecting a broach on the chest of a baroque woman in a painting, who leers back at him- as do a group of disgusted looking men in another painting. While humorous and innocent in Rockwell's stylistic way, it takes on new meaning when learned that his models for the art student and the woman are his son and his wife. In short, he's illustrated the Oedipus story, right down to the mother's broach that Oedipus gauges his eyes with when he realizes that his wife is his mother. Even the disgusted guys in the other painting can see how wrong the whole thing is. Rockwell loved this kind of subtle jabbing, especially the fact that he could put it on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell also felt deeply insecure about his place in art. He tackles the subject on numerous occasions, but probably most blatantly in "The Connoisseur". For the painting, he mixes his style with that of a Jackson Pollock rip-off, raising all sorts of questions about modern art. He removes the mans face all together, so we can't see his reaction. Instead, the work is a strange mixing of 2 completely opposite approaches to art and Rockwell's way of working out the deep concerns/insecurities about his life's work.

Here's a line from the back of the book:

In this sure-to-be controversial book, Richard Halpern argues that this sense of innocence arises from our reluctance—and also Rockwell’s—to acknowledge the often disturbing dimensions of his works. Rockwell’s paintings frequently teem with perverse acts of voyeurism and desire but contrive to keep these acts invisible—or rather, hidden in plain sight, available for unacknowledged pleasure but easily denied by the viewer.

Rockwell emerges in this book, then, as a deviously brilliant artist, a remorseless diagnostician of the innocence in which we bathe ourselves, and a continuing, unexpected influence on contemporary artists. Far from a banal painter of the ordinary, Halpern argues, Rockwell is someone we have not yet dared to see for the complex creature he is: a wholesome pervert, a knowing innocent, and a kitschy genius.


February has been a crazy month-

My search for a mentor artist has been a tough one... I was supposed to have the mentor locked down a week or 2 ago, and am happy to say that today it's finally come together. I'll be working with Tim Tozer, a local professor of painting and drawing at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. He also paints and exhibits at the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis. Here's a few of his images:


We met for the first time this morning and had a great conversation. He's excited to work with me and had some great suggestions. I'm excited to get to work.

Speaking of working, I've already been putting in serious time in the cold basement studio. I have started the underpainting on 7 (that's right 7) new paintings. Many of them are small, thus the amount of started work. I've started work on 8" x 8" little fragments of old photographic imagery that will come together to make a large fragmented work. I'm thinking its a good way for me to take more of an artistic stand on the imagery with selectively cropping, as opposed to simply copying an old photo. I'm continuing to still do that as well with a series of larger paintings. I hope to have some images to post soon.