If you want to stop the conversation cold around your table at a museum press lunch, try saying something nice about Norman Rockwell. I used that clever gambit at a Metropolitan Museum lunch earlier this week. It produced what it would be fair to call an awkward silence until Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, gamely offered that, well, that wasn’t a sentiment one heard much. Everyone else more or less stared into their salads.
What led me into that reckless announcement was that I had seen a very small show last week at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that was built around a single Rockwell painting. The Rookie, which Rockwell made for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1957, is a picture of a kid introducing himself in the locker room of the Red Sox spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla. Rockwell used a local Massachusetts high school player for the lanky kid, and surrounded him with recognizable Red Sox, including Ted Williams standing at center, the old pro sizing him up. (Old! In the spring of 1957 Ted Williams would have been 38. Okay, old for baseball.)
Yes, I know all the arguments against Rockwell. I’ve made some of them myself. (There’s a link below.) But I know some of the arguments in his favor — you can check the link if you’re inclined — and I can take whatever comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone. Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker has called Rockwell “some kind of great artist”. And there’s always Dave Hickey, the Western wild man of art criticism, who loves him.
I won’t deny that Rockwell played to the sentimental comfort zone of his audience. So does John Currin. It’s just that for Currin’s audience, which is us, the comfort zone is cynicism and of course irony, the sentimentality of the baby boomers, their emotional default mode. And though Rockwell could make references in his work to art history, he didn’t wear them on his sleeve the way Currin does. As an example, I’m inclined to see in that line of small rectangular windows that run along the top of The Rookie a very subdued reference to the predella panels that skirt the bottom of Renaissance altarpieces. But where a predella panel will be a religious scene that amplifies the main image of the altarpiece, those horizontal openings in The Rookie just contain some palm fronds. But wait, palm fronds — doesn’t spring training coincide with Easter? And isn’t there some ritual of renewal going on in this locker room, too?
When I read over what I just wrote here I realized that worse than making a plea for Rockwell, I was in danger of giving the appearance of sucking up to the Red Sox — not acceptable for a lifelong New Yorker. So to clear up any misunderstanding I’m going to dedicate this post to my friend John, who ran the entire Boston Marathon this spring in a Yankees uniform.
He didn’t even mean it as performance art, but I think a case could be made.
As for that link I mentioned up above — I did a longer, somewhat equivocal defense of Rockwell nine years ago at the time of his traveling retrospective that ended up at — gosh — the Guggenheim.