“Norman Rockwell,” on display at Utica’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, showcases an artist both beloved for his view of small-town America and reviled by a coterie of art critics during the 1950s.
The exhibition is expansive, spanning work done for the Saturday Evening Post, the Boy Scouts of America, and Look magazine. It travels from a town meeting in Vermont to New York City, from India to 1960s Louisiana.
The show doesn’t merely present a large selection of Rockwell’s artworks; it also traces a shift that took place when he left the Post and started doing covers for Look.
The presentation of his art at yet another museum is hardly a isolated phenomenon. Over the past 30 years, Rockwell has experienced a renaissance. His paintings are sold for hefty prices, exhibited at various venues, assessed in a more positive light. In addition, in two biographies and numerous articles, Rockwell is seen as a more complex figure, both artistically and personally.
To be sure, the very name Norman Rockwell connotes a slice of Americana, a society where harmony dominates and conflict is seemingly deep below the surface. The Utica exhibit, with its display of every cover Rockwell created for the Saturday Evening Post, has lots of cuter-than-cute illustrations.
Indeed, viewers will encounter a piece depicting a young boy playing with puppies, a scene in which a boy has crawled to the end of a diving board and is afraid to jump off, and work such as “Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus.” There a student smirks and is self-congratulatory, while two classmates find him annoying.
That kind of work clearly isn’t the sum total of Rockwell’s art. The show also presents his portrayal of a barbershop scene in which he plays with light and shadows, as well as a piece depicting renovation of a church’s stained-glass window. The restoration worker is tiny, the window gigantic. In “Merry-go-Round,” Rockwell blends three elements: a carousel horse, an artisan painting another horse, a sideshow in the background.
Moreover, a 1944 oil painting depicting Grand Central Station at holiday time, is colorful and dynamic. It demonstrates that Rockwell had little problem depicting crowds.
While the artist was criticized for being overly sentimental, the Utica exhibition presents artworks in which he used emotion effectively. One piece references Thanksgiving 1945, as a veteran returned home sits with his mother. They both peel potatoes, and that act links to time he spent in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The exhibit makes an important transition when it moves from the Post covers to the illustrations Rockwell did for Look from 1968 to 1978. He was long frustrated by the Post’s discomfort with covers portraying African Americans in any role other than service-industry worker. At Look, he had the freedom to delve into social issues.
And so, the show places special emphasis on two illustrations done for Look: “The Problem We All Live With” and “New Kids in the Neighborhood.” In the first piece, Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old child, is accompanied by federal marshals as she goes to school. It’s 1960, and the integration of Louisiana’s schools has evoked strident opposition, some of it violent. She walks by a wall splattered by a tomato and containing the text of a racial epithet. The artwork is visceral, striking.
“New Kids,” meanwhile, discusses integration of Chicago’s suburbs. It depicts a moving truck, two black children, and three white children.
Those pieces certainly document Rockwell’s passage into new artistic territory. However, the show offers just a sampling of the Look covers. It’s difficult to get a sense of the work he did for the magazine over a decade.
On the other hand, the MWPAI exhibition deals effectively with Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” artwork. In a speech delivered to Congress in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of freedom of speech and freedom of worship; freedom from want and freedom from fear. To communicate that narrative, his administration solicited the input of artists, poets and actors.
Ultimately, Rockwell created four illustrations embodying his vision of the concepts. Each ran in the Post in four consecutive issues, not on covers but on inside pages accompanied by an essay. The writers included Carlos Bulosan, a poet and labor activist, and three Pulitzer Prize winners: Will Durant, Booth Tarkington and Stephen Vincent Benet.
Doing the illustrations was a difficult task, and Rockwell turned to his strength — emotion and gut-level communication. In “Freedom from Fear,” two parents watch over their children in bed. For “Freedom from Want,” he relied on the visual trope of a huge turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. “Freedom of Worship” portrays a large group of people but doesn’t place them in a church or synagogue. The most specific of the four,” Freedom of Speech,” features a blue-collar everyman speaking at a town meeting.
The Saturday Evening Post received 25,000 requests for reprints, and the Roosevelt administration decided to use them as the centerpiece for a national campaign to sell war bonds. The Department of Treasury coordinated a 16-city tour in which the original paintings, along with posters, pamphlets and a slew of paintings by other artists, traveled around the nation.
That positive response was hardly universal. Conservative columnists said the notion of freedom from want was designed to push FDR’s social-welfare programs. Civil-rights activists commented that if Roosevelt was truly concerned about freedom from fear, he should lobby for anti-lynching legislation.
To its credit, the show doesn’t envision the paintings as the final word on the American dream. Instead, “Norman Rockwell” both displays the works in a large-scale format and invites viewers to consider the relevance of Rockwell’s work to life in the United States today.
Munson-Williams-Proctor facilitated that discussion by setting up a room where it’s easy to sit in front of a computer and watch videos of community members speaking about the Rockwell exhibit. It’s also possible to take part in an audio tour featuring commentary from sectors of the Utica-area population — former refugees, community leaders of color, and others. And viewers are invited to leave their own written comments.
This effort points to one of the exhibit’s principal virtues: a desire to move beyond displaying Rockwell’s artworks to asking about the impact his work has today. The posing of that question helps make this a successful show and an important addition to the Central New York exhibition calendar.
“Norman Rockwell” is organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It’s on display through Sept. 18 at Munson-Williams-Proctor, 310 Genesee St. in Utica. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for full-time students, free for active-duty military personnel and their families, EBT cardholders, and children 12 or younger. For more information, call 315-797-0000.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about exhibits and arts in Central New York.