Friday, January 20, 2012

Life Process: Hiroe Saeki at the Pizzuti Collection

It's not going too far to suggest that any viewer, of any age or acquaintance with art, will react with dropped jaw to Hiroe Saeki's three mixed-media drawings in the Pizzuti Collection's Teasers show. Some form of the question, "How could she have done that?" will leap to mind, or its variant, "I could never do that!" While the second is probably true, it would be too bad to leave the first as merely rhetorical: There's a lot of fascination in Saeki's process.
Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Center"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
 Alas, the three 17.7" square works on paper are poorly hung in this show. They occupy the dimmest corner of a small room and their Plexiglas boxes distractingly reflect everything around them—the neighboring Kara Walker video, and the swirling Suling Wang abstract drawing opposite. Saeki's virtuosity is mesmerizing; that it remains so through a lot of major environmental impediments is powerful testimony to the fascination it exerts.

The list of materials on the labels for Saeki's works do not mention "graphite." But that's clearly the material that composes the undulating soft masses—the "clouds"—of gray. The color and sheen, the absorption into the paper, are all characteristic of the material.  Graphite is often delivered to large areas by broad bars or in powder form. Powdered graphite is particularly useful for achieving effects like Saeki's: We see the imprints of the artist's fingertips, which have rubbed accumulations of graphite into the paper both to produce lighter and and darker value, and to thin out its application on sections of the paper.

Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Right"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
What the labels do specify is that the artist used pencil. This tells us that Saeki created these great masses of gray by accumulations of small strokes of graphite, all except a very few of which have been obliterated by rubbing and blending. (One detects discrete pencil strokes along the bottoms of "Right" and "Center,"  They also emerge in energetic tiny shoots from the margins of the gray/white lines in "Left" and "Right."

To think of Saeki's covering pages with tiny pencil strokes will inevitably bring "obsessive-compulsive" to the lips of some for whom such repetitious application is a sure sign of abnormality. But if we attach ourselves in imagination to the hand that holds the pencil, do we really find ourselves acting from a bizarre compulsion? Wouldn't we, rather, be moving with contemplative study and care?

Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Left"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Floating in some indeterminate spatial relationship to the graphite clouds are tiny circles, sometimes single and sometimes massed like molecules. It's tempting to call these "bubbles" except that they are described by unexpressive line only—unshaded—so that they are distinctly two-dimensional events. Whether they are part of the gray "clouds" or are spatially separate and exist as a scrim before them (if so, by how far?) is uncertain.
white circles/bubbles (author photo)

Were Saeki to have defined the gray areas by the use of graphite by bar or powder with less effort, she would have had to cover too much paper. the coverage of the paper would have been less under he control. It would have been impossible to retain the virgin white areas required for describing those white circles. Each is outlined with fine-point pencil, and the dark background meets its edges precisely. Only by precise application—use of the pointed pencil—would it have been possible to leave the white.

visible pencil strokes at edge (author photo)
The ability of the hand to illuminate the mind cannot be overstated. When my own hand tries to imagine Saeki's, carefully moving across those pages, poised to avoid smudging, sometimes creating density and sometimes the delicacy of "Left's" black-to-white edge, I'm aware how this work would quickly become the sort of meditation that softens one's breathing and cleanses the mind. This work is not obsessive; it's an induced state of being, a reflection that is its own experience independent of the artifact—a completed drawing—that will emerge at some future point.

As the work continues for the artist committed to the calm and patient course, how the stakes go up! When does a plan or goal emerge, as it must? Then, what constitutes error in the composition? Does the plan include the end, or does it remain to be discovered, all of a sudden?
detail from "Left"
author photo
Saeki's pencil draws a medium, environment, or background for events executed in spring-colored twists of acrylic paint. In "Left," the paint is applied as two thick vertical strokes that have the presence of foreground figures. In "Center," an amorphous, filmy creature appears to be suspended in its gray medium. The paint in "Right" is spatially different, caught between planes of the white circles.

The painted passages of the three drawings appear as quickly executed as the graphite appears the opposite. Saeki provides not only contrast, but the drama of extraordinary daring since the paint effaces large areas of the what has been so painstakingly accomplished.

Saeki's willingness to present together the labor in graphite and the intuitive fortunes of paint underscores the depth and seriousness of her work. The wisdom to value without overvaluing the meditative, repetitious movements, combined with the courage to use them as a basis for bold acts of insight—this strikes me as constituting a mature ethic.

Ultimately, I think Saeki's drawings, while touching on questions fascinating to Art—representations of three-dimensional space, techniques in chosen materials, process of composition—are exquisite examples of life and art allied. Whether Saeki's outlook on contemplation and action nurtured her artistic process; or if her thoughtful process has crystallized this connection between constancy and decisiveness I cannot know. But the relationship is indisputably modeled in the work.

Breathtaking work like Saeki's—work that contemplates core issues of how we live—is available to anyone who walks through the open gallery door—and looks.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nothing Like a Dame: Some Women Artists from the Pizzuti Collection

To the incomparable benefit of the public, Ron Pizzuti will begin to exhibit his famous collection of contemporary art in a dedicated building now being prepared in the Short North district of Columbus, Ohio. The building is scheduled for a fall, 2012 opening.

Linda Gall, Centerpiece with Marine Decoration, acrylic on panel,
16" x 20." Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection.
The Collection's director and curator, Rebecca Ibel, has organized a show in Pizzuti's 2 Miranova building to create anticipation for the fall event. Teasers: Selected works from the Pizzuti Collection by Women Artists is appetizing as a Julia Child cake, full of richness and very little mundane filler. Her choice of works makes us wonder, above all, what "women's art" may be. Isn't it futile to speak of such a category at all? The show's work ranges from nude self-portraiture (Joan Semmel) to political statement (Margarita Cabrera) to severely disciplined abstraction (Pia Fries): It would require a philosopher of great subtlety to wring a conclusion about women from that line-up. As it would require one to draw a conclusion about men from a selection of work by Cy Twombly, Edgar J. Brown, and Gilbert and George.

Women's work often reflects their ideas about gender identity and their roles in society. So does men's, even if its only by their imagery of women. Ibel throws both sex and gender in our faces with her double entendre title, "Teasers." In the context of a show by women artists, "teasers" is fraught with the idea of women—girls, chicks, babes, ball-busters—focused on coy relationships to men. Nothing here could be less true.

Moyna Flannigan, Bunny No.5, 2010.
Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection

Moyna Flannigan's ink on paper "Bunnies," numbers 5 and 11, are as close as we come to teasers in the demeaned sense. These are chilling bunnies of discontent. Their sadness lies not only in disaffected facial expressions, but in shrunken bodies, in their meager builds (even artificially enhanced) and postures folded in on themselves. Their shadows are silent commentaries on the figures. Bunny No. 5, with her enlarged breasts and wasp waist is reflected by a meager, shapeless shadow whose ears never even ascend before drooping. Is the shadow her ego? Bunny No. 11 crouches as if stalked by her big, black shadow, with its pumped-up version of her tiny breasts, outsized phallic ears, and a flat head that does no more than support them. Perhaps she is supposed to be a teaser that she isn't and cringes before an attributed image that she can't shake.

Moyna Flannigan, Bunny No. 11, 2010,
Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection
I had to visit Flannigan's website to get a sense of what the artist is all about since the two drawings in this show don't offer much for a second look. Their simplicity relates to the body of her work: The Bunnies are characters in a great cast of women she draws and paints. The individuals exist in diaspora, gathering only on a website or as they happen to be hung together or reproduced in a collection. I'm not sure what the interest of any single drawing can be, since each depends heavily on the totality of Flannigan's work for its fullest significance. A viewer may like the artist's ideas globally without finding this or that particular work to be of lasting interest on its own artistic merits.

Glenda Leon, Listening to the Stars, 10-7/8" x 13-3/8."
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Cuban Glenda Leon's drawings from her series of "Acoustic Drawings" are among the few works in Teasers that picture a female form. Even though the young woman's unexceptional dress in coat and boots appears to relay no sexual or social statement, the linear simplicity of Leon's style suggests a feminine outlook. I wince even at myself by saying this because I'm blurring the line between "feminine" and "childlike," as I believe Leon—consciously or unconsciously—invites us to do. (Are masculine points-of-view ever "childlike" without being "mentally defective?") So the feminine sensibility is defined not so much by the presence of a female figure as by the childlike—or, maybe, adolescent—renderings of heart, stars, and boyfriend; by the internal emotional connections left to the imagination of the viewer. And of course we assume them to be emotional: Just look at the little red heart, just look at the stars!
Glenda Leon, Love (She Listens).
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
As her Scots colleague's drawings do, Leon's leaves us wanting more to look at. Are these drawings wry, minimalist  commentaries on the projected image of the feminine? Are they meditations on silence and space? I don't think there's enough on the page (either mark or significantly composed space) to tell. Again, a trip to a critical essay is needed to place these in sufficient context to give them interest (try her website.) Individual pieces don't really stand alone; they are part of a dispersed work we could title,The Ideas of Glenda Leon. These drawings are fragments, their significance being accretive and cerebral.

Joan Semmel, Transformation, 60" x 48,"
oil on canvas. Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection
In contrast to Flannigan's and Leon's drawings we have Joan Semmel's robust, life-sized dual self-portrait. There's nothing girlish or gamine about this authoritative image of a woman. The nudity is secondary to the expression on the blue-eyed face to the left. Semmel has painted an older and a younger self. The older face rests on the shoulder of the younger figure like a boulder on a ledge. In fact the nudity strikes me similarly: It is lapidary—geological—like a wind-carved Southwestern landscape, the sort that Georgia O'Keefe could have painted with red sand stone against a thin blue sky.

Semmel portrays not someone who has grown, but a woman whose exposure to life's elements has released her essence, like a sculpture released from ancient stone. Like the turquoise ring she wears, she's a geological beauty, enduring and responsive to the sanding events—to the inevitabilities—that have shaped her. The portrait is womanly in its lack of compromise or embarrassment. With landscape so strongly implied, the aging woman's self-possession is compared to the slow transformation of stone. Her age is strength, not the disintegration and weakness of failing flesh.

Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, 50"x50"x18"
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection.
Although we see the female figure represented literally by Flannigan, Leon, and Semmel, a dazzling abstract sculpture by Indian artist Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, strikes me as being more evocative of a woman's body than anything else in the show. The power of this work lies not only in the way it allows us to create a flesh and blood woman in our imaginations from a pattern of hardwares (polythene sheeting, copper wire, rope, metal eyelets, etc.), but also in the way the materials selected help us relate that woman to her traditional position in society.

Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, detail.
Photo by the author.
The translucent sac is formed from cells of plastic attached by metal grommets and tied with red thread that dangles like tiny trickles of blood. Running through the center of the sculpture is a deep red, heavy, twisted cotton rope with many offshoots. To some it will suggest a root system; for menstruating women, a soaked tampon's cord. Within this translucent sac, it strikes me as a circulatory system, branching through the soft body of an organ—a uterus perhaps.
Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, detail.
Photo by the author.

The title, "Thousand Room House," is a brilliant metaphor for a woman's body. It works as a description of any cellular organism. It also describes the multitude of emotional and real activities women traditionally engage in. It can even refer specifically to the fertile womb.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all about this most feminine sculpture is its beauty. From common materials Shettar has created a generative vessel of luminous allure and mystery. It does not give up all its secrets, which remain veiled by its very nature. Approachable but impenetrable; fragile in appearance by sturdy in construction; magical and common: Thousand Room House is a dense, coherent, and haunting work of art.

Sarah Cain, Secret Magic Plan, mixed media, 64-3/4" x55-3/4."
courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Detail of Secret Magic Plan. Note seam in
paper. Photo by the author.
Detail. Note overlaps
of paper. Photo by the author.
While I don't take Sarah Cain's Secret Magic Plan to be figurative, her large mixed-media work on paper is constructed from many collaged layers. It shares with Shettar's sculpture the motif of disguise, despite the viewer's illusion of nakedness in Shettar's body, and of ingenuousness in Cain's zippy presentation. She has vertically mounted a rectangular scarf (a magician's scarf?) on the left, as a pillar of her composition. Less visible are the many seams where layers of cut paper intersect or overlap one another while the eye is distracted from them by flights of color and gesture, by the persistence of lines boldly drawn in bright colors. Cain also introduces women's ornamentation with the scarf and the two necklaces strung between them. Ornaments are another form of the invisible visible: They allow women to hide themselves in plain sight by means of distraction. 
Necklaces of beads, shells, bells; scarf, left. Photo by the author.
Cover-up, then, when it's not a political topic, is a feminine one. It touches on power and vulnerability that attach to one's appearance and to the independence lent by psychic and real privacy women can earn for themselves by artful strategy. Women's freedoms aren't merely a matter of their performing magic, but of doing so in secret, from (like Shettar) what simple scraps and materials come to hand.

Square Painting by Allison Miller seems not only to be a woman's work, but a commentary on women's work by a woman artist. This light-as-air oil-on-canvas suggests to me a tension that female artists sometimes feel between the materials in which women have traditionally raised their labor to art—especially in the textiles suggested here—and the materials with which men have dominated Western art history.

Allison Miller, Square Painting, 48" x 60." Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection. 
Artists like Miller, working in revered fine art materials like oil and encaustic, are sometimes aware of their personal connections to women who sewed, knitted, cooked and constructed out of necessity, but who found means of fine personal expressions in their common stuff. By the same token, female artists sometimes struggle with the issue of defining artistic excellence in materials that have historically been the province of men. Such gender-coded battles are lightly waged in Square Painting—rather, they are considered, for this is a musing work filled with the non-combative questions implied by juxtapositions. 

Detail showing "matting" corner. Photo by the author.

"Handkerchief linen" texture.
Photo by the author.

Emphasizing it's rectangular shape (and the point that Miller's painting is not itself square), a diaphanous, woven shawl is draped across the picture in space that is and isn't real. On the left, the shawl is finished with a contrasting border; on the right, the border is folded over itself. The "square" at center, top is also a textile, an uncanny representation of lightweight handkerchief linen, with each thread represented, as in the shawl. The painting seems related to folk art in the simultaneous impulses to spatial freedom and representational literalness. 

Log cabin quilt

Detail by the author.
The central (non)square seems to draw from both the worlds of handicraft and fine art. Its design reminds me of an Amish pieced quilt, the "log cabin" design built around a center block. On the other hand, Miller has painted in four corner that one might see in the matting of an elegantly framed print. Within the same image, the two worlds of experience fuse. Similarly, the black structure half-seen through the shawl represents nothing literally, so is available for overlapping interpretations—as an artist's easel surely, but also as a hand-loom or a quilting frame. 

Miller's "squares" seem to denote no more than series of right angles, which can be as flexible as the interstices of a loosely woven summer fabric. The Greek key pattern—based on squares that never close—is a stable form despite its openness. Still, its flow gives it the alternate name of "meander," as Miller allows hers lavishly to do, looming and receding on either side of the painting (and the shawl). 

I think Square Painting has to do with the absence of the four-square in life and with what we accept in its place. I think it looks at the convergence of opposites—white and black, closed and open, veiled and exposed, and, ultimately, feminine and masculine—and how they form an inconclusive but balanced and workable world. Miller presents what I think is a complex and subtle vision that we can virtually watch being worked out on the canvas. Are her process and its outcome things only a woman could negotiate?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Attack on an Abstract Painting

Clyfford Still painting. The damage to the painting is
identified as "1957-J-No. 2." (Denver Post file photo)
On January 6, 2012 The Columbus Dispatch ran an Associated Press article about a shocking occurrence at the Clyfford Still Museum. "Motive a mystery in defacing art" tells how $10,000 of damage was done to a monumental Still painting. The attack took place on December 29 by a woman "punching and scratching it, then removing her pants and sliding down the art-work."

Local and national media conspired to make the perp's face more recognizable than any of Mr. Still's paintings will ever be. Denver's CBS4—investigated details that the AP didn't pick up: "According to the Denver Police report, [Carmen] Tisch, 36, then pulled down her pants while leaning against the painting and urinated as she sat on the floor. It is unknown whether any urine got on the painting."

Carmen Tisch,
Denver District Attorney's 
What hateful, repulsive actions. But I have yet to hear anybody wonder what moved Tisch to visit this particular museum and to vandalize this particular large (9-1/2' x 13') absrtact painting, 1957-J-No.2. The Still Museum is next door to the Denver Museum of Art, after all, with a much broader collection. If she'd really wanted to raise hell, she could have picked a Bierstadt landscape of the Rockies, or a Spanish colonial Virgin to unleash her bladder upon. I suspect that she would have created a flap of outrage based on desecration of imagery.

But Tisch is reported to have been drunk at the time, and the  single mug shot of her tremendously tattooed self seems to grant universal permission for the press to ask no searching questions—particularly since it's paired with the image of the victim, an enormous, zig-zaggy canvas that probably means nothing to most norms-defending journalists. "She's a drunk slut," is, I'm betting, as deep as this inquiry ever goes. Any questions of motive or meaning will remain rhetorical.

But we must pursue Ms. Tisch's motives as far as reasonable imagination can take us because it is so different from other are defacements. What leads a person to vandalism in a modern art museum? It appears not to involve none of the political or religious ideology that so infuriates most art slashers. Tisch wasn't an ideologue.

If the location of a crime tells us something about the mind of the criminal, it seems that Tisch had to have gone to some trouble to act out where she did. Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to have wrought havoc in a bank, a bodega, a branch library, or shoe store? To penetrate to the galleries of an art museum takes time and effort; one doesn't find the paintings just by walking off the street.

The entrance to the new Clyfford Still
Museum at dusk. Visitors enter the museum through
 a landscaped forecourt, which provides a transition
 from the surrounding urban context.
All photography by Raul J. Garcia.
 Image courtesy Clyfford Still Museum.

It appears that the Still Museum is set apart from regular urban foot traffic by its park-like setting. What's more, according to the Museum website, there's an admissions charge. Members are always free; adults pay ten dollars; students and seniors pay six, youth pay three, and tots are free. According to the posted scheme, then, for Ms. Tisch to have been in the Museum, she would have either shown her membership card (or one she had borrowed), or payed ten dollars. No one reported her having been in company. In fact, the Denver Post quotes the Denver District Attorney's Office spokeswoman as remarking, "You have to wonder where her friends were."

I can't know why the drunken, puffy-faced, inked Ms. Tisch defaced 1957-J-#2, an abstract painting. This wasn't a crime of grand political passions like the 1987 destruction of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ photograph in Melbourne, Australia. Serrano had photographed a statuette of Jesus on the cross submerged in a vessel of urine (so we were told). While his work was being hammered to pieces by two young men who found it sacrilegious, their friends who had run a decoy action were smashing someone else's work depicting a Ku Klux Klansman. The malefactors also took a position against racism. Indeed.

When the content of art is perceived to have offending political or religious content, those whose office is to defend art do not always always prove the stoutest of defenders. In the Serrano case, the National Gallery in Melbourne closed down the embattled show. In a related action, support for the arts in the US fell like boulders from a shrinking glacier:

Congressional Record
Senate - May 18, 1989:

#1. Mr. [Alfonse] D'AMATO [of New York]. . . . Mr. President, several weeks ago, I began to receive a number of letters, phone calls, and postcards from constituents throughout the Senate concerning art work by Andres Serrano. They express a feeling of shock, of outrage, and anger.

#2. They said, "How dare you spend our taxpayers' money on this trash." They all objected to taxpayers' money being used for a piece of so-called art work which, to be quite candid, I am somewhat reluctant to utter its title. This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity. The art work in question is a photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist's urine.

#3. This artist received $15,000 for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, through the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987
#4. Well, if this is what contemporary art has sunk to, this level, this outrage, this indignity - some may want to sanction that, and that is fine. But not with the use of taxpayers' money. This is not a question of free speech. This is a question of abuse of taxpayers' money. If we allow this group of so-called art experts to get away with this, to defame us and to use our money, well, then we do not deserve to be in office.

#5. This is why, Mr. President, I am proud of the members, who in literally a matter of minutes - over 20, about 25 - joined me in signing a strong letter of protest to the endowment. Here is a picture, and the title is "Piss Christ." Incredible.

Many consider Piss Christ a work of deep faith. This was a point to which the terrorist youths of Melbourne nor the New York's senator made themselves available. 

But then, neither thugs nor senators really reacted to art at all. They were moved by their fears that others might misappropriate the power they wield as self-proclaimed defenders of sacrosanct Values. Artists are, have been, and will be the enemy of these people because self-appointed guardians of sacred icons believe that any interpretation of their icons is misinterpretation. The Piss Christ controversy had very little to do with the nature of art. The issue for the vandals with hammers and for those with the podium alike, Serrano's work was misappropriation of personal property.

Nothing like this came up in the Tisch case, which seemed pretty squalid and low-stakes by comparison. It entirely lacked histrionics. There was no ideology involved. It wasn't even clear whether she urinated on the painting or just wet her pants from incontinence. 

The outrage at the Still Museum is really about the cost of restoration. I haven't read a single word of dismay about disrespect for works of art. Had Tisch banged up a display of Nikes, it might have been all the same: destruction of real property is the issue. It's ironic, since it's even likely that the perp's incursions will enhance interest in 1957-J-No.2, as they've already enhanced awareness of the Clyfford Still Museum. It has to have been a public relations benefit.

But back to the question: What of Ms. Carmen Tisch and why she did it? This is the big story that art-lovers should be focused on. Why did this woman—why did a woman like this—bring her anger and sorrow to this painting? Why did she beat on it, moon it, then sit down, defeated, in front of it? She could have made a run for it, but she didn't even try. She seemed to be where she wanted to be for whatever purpose brought her there.

Her actions were like the expressions children direct at people who are huge in their emotional lives, those great enough to give or withhold nurture, validation, and understanding. These  guardian figures don't disappear no matter how angry or ineffectual you are, whether you're a competent adult or sitting in a pool of piss. 

Tisch's mother said, in a later story, reported the Denver Post  but that never made it to AP, that her daughter's a talented tattoo artist. An artist. With even less information than that, I'd be willing to wager that the episode has everything to do with with her personal response to Still's paintings and with her ability to relate to the power of artists. Tisch didn't just land in the museum. She's a thwarted creative person who sought out a meaningful painting? Perhaps she relates to its power and freedom, and to its muteness.

Maybe she felt the complications of hope, the nuanced indirection of life possibilities the artist displays through the painting: Maybe Still's abstraction moved her, bafflingly, hopefully—tormentingly?

Even to people less distracted than Tisch, a famous artist can be a hero whose work lends inspiration and moral support, a mentor who can't talk back...except when an interior dialogue gets out of hand?

The idea of the great painter; the awe created by the painting's size, it's mixture of authority and freedom: Perhaps something that anyone can feel in this mix, evident to one and all, spoke with special urgency to Carmen Tisch.

Defacers of art are getting something wrong. In most cases they are are doing it out of ideology and they take extremely simplistic views that hope to strip art of any but literal value. The motives are explained by politics, power, and grandiosity. 

The case of Tisch in the Still Museum seems to be profoundly different, and in a way that should give art lovers heart. Tisch went to an altar of thought or feeling for soul-searching. I think she responded to the complexity and ambiguity of the art. It's humanity made it the generous, place lacking ideology and prescription where she could resign herself to a transition. It was her place to collapse and force the issue of getting up. 

However it fell out inside Carmen Tisch, even in its destruction, the art itself seemed to speak to her, to make an intimate, if highly confused, difference. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Norman Rockwell, In the Picture and Out

The Dayton Art Institute is showing American Chronicle: The Art of Norman Rockwell through February 5. It's a great big show with 42 original works and all 323 covers Rockwell created over 47 years for The Saturday Evening Post. I've always thought Rockwell a low-brow artist of treacly subjects, though a witty storyteller with a great aptitude for visual characterization. A man of ideas whose work transforms me? No. 

Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943 
War bond poster. 
Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943 
©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, I
Still, I'm the first person to advocate for contemporary artists whose work friends dismiss because they "just don't get it." "You've got to ask some questions," I'll say. "Try to figure out what why she's made the decisions she has to create this image." At the threshold of this definitive show in Dayton, it was clearly time to do what I say. American Chronicle puts Rockwell in a context that the single reproductions through which most of us know him cannot. I left the Institute knowing that I've completely misconstrued what he was trying to do. I've ascribed the images of the enormous Thanksgiving turkey presented to the reverent wartime family and the mythic summertime frolics of youth to the boring technician, Norman Rockwell. After having seen this large show in Dayton, I begin to doubt, though, that Norman Rockwell was more than a label for a subtle and elusive artist whose ideas may not at all be revealed in the obvious ways I—like many others—have assumed.
No Swimming, Norman Rockwell, 1921 
Oil on canvas, 25 ¼” x 22 ¼” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1921 
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.15 
©1921 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 

Rockwell is the artist who defined America's contented normality. His images of happy, middle-class, multi-generational families; of Boy Scouts, and the exercise of Christian-based, simple moral values have played a material role in defining an idea of national unity heartening to many. The same aspects of his work are repellant to many others troubled by the racial and economic injustice overlooked in most of his oeuvre of contentment.

A gallery note at the show, supported by a short video, demonstrates that the American family Rockwell portrayed on magazine covers formed the basis of early television's sitcom families. Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet simply continued in sound and action the families solidly established by years of Rockwell's still, two-dimensional stories. But Rockwell's self-generated white neighborhood integrated once he left The Saturday Evening Post in the 1960's and moved to Look magazine. It seems that the white families for which he's so famous arose in part from editorial policy. The Post would not have Blacks represented on its cover except in the roles of servants. The Problem We All Live With was published in Look.
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell, 1963 
Oil on canvas, 36” x 58” 
Illustration for Look, January 14, 1964 
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1975.1 
Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. 

"I'm not a fine art man," Rockwell said of himself. Here he inscribes a painting to Walt Disney, "one of the really great artists." The genre of dedication invites fulsome language, but Disney might well have been an idol for Rockwell. After all, Rockwell was a professional illustrator with an enviable, lucrative gig at a leading magazine. Like Disney, he was in the business of providing delight for profit.

Artist Facing Blank Canvas, Norman Rockwell, 1938 
Oil on canvas, 38 ½” x 30 ½” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, October 8, 1938 
Inscribed “To my good friends Jorj and Ben Harris” 
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.4 
©1938 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 
This charming early cover for The Saturday Evening Post, where he began at age 22, provides an amusing view of an "artist at work"—so we suppose, accustomed as we are to understanding easel and brushes as icons of the fine artist. This is no artist in a romantic sense, for the picture is dominated by the icons of the illustrator. Conspicuous are the watch and reminder of his deadline: He's not waiting for the skies to part and offer Inspiration, though he wouldn't mind it: Note the horseshoe. In functional aid of inspiration, his bookshelf holds a volume called "Dog Clips" and another called, "Models—Old Men/Boys/Pretty Girls." There's one more stout book on the shelf: "Bills." This artist is a working man, on the clock, with bills to pay. He's sitting closer to the advertising department than the art museum. 

Commercial artists work on assignments under the guidance of editors, and are governed by their rules ("No Blacks"). The job for a cover-designer is to catch and hold the consumer's eye, to make a particular population want the magazine, ultimately so it can attract advertisers. Rockwell did his job by using his vast art skills and considerable wits to tell stories visually. He explicitly considered himself a storyteller rather than the "fine art man."  

Considering Rockwell's works as well-considered responses to his assignments, they are brilliant. Would I ever give that man a raise! He engages the viewer with instantly appealing stories that speak to a middle-class magazine-purchasing public. His stories are so much richer than they have to be. He is a storyteller on a level with Robert Louis Stevenson or O. Henry. His command of detail and structure, the way he develops tension and internal relationships are magnificent. And even those who dismiss his work as artistically insubstantial have to be very impressed by his narrative ability and by the flawless realistic technique that supports it, technique ideal for articulating the stories and lending them the air of truth. He made no claim to be addressing the taste of fine art consoisseurs. It's not what The Post  was paying him to do. 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 1, 1951
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection
©1951 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 
photo by the author

thinned surface in Lubalin cover
more typical surface, fromTriple Portrait
Rockwell carefully chose his approach to illustration. In this tour de force cover, Lubalin Redesigning the Post, 1961, he puts his colleague in the chair to work on his assignment of updating the magazine's look. Clipped to Lubalin's drawing board are back issues, including many Rockwell covers that look decidedly old-fashioned. But old-fashioned was Rockwell's choice—it was his preferred narrative voice. To make the point, though, that he was a virtuoso who could do anything he pleased, he painted  this cover entirely in Lubalin's style. Not only are the content details—the furniture, the haircut, the coffee mug—all up-to-date, but even Rockwell's painting technique departs from his usual, heavily built-up application of paint. On this canvas, the paint is thinned; he uses just enough to cover, quite in keeping with the sleek, spare, contemporary message Lubalin works on. The perfect unity of message and medium extends to Rockwell's very signature, conscious of current trends in letter forms.


The stenciled Norman Rockwell signature that I've thought his trademark is in fact only one of many ways he identified himself in his work. In this exhibition, it's clear that he altered his signature to conform to the style and composition of the work. The mark of his identity is negotiable and subject to the assignment. There is never a question of Rockwell's exhibiting a personality that's not in service to the goal.

Literature distinguishes authors from narrators. Stories are told from the points of view of narrators, who are creations of real-life authors. It's the author's task to exert consistent control through mastery of techniques, which allow us to enter and remain in the narrator's point of view. Rockwell does this perfectly: There is always an emphatic point of view, but who the author/painter is—the mind creating the point of view—he doesn't reveal. Every tool in Rockwell's considerable kit serves the story, which serves his client's need. It's never about the artist's own creativity in any Romantic art historical tradition. When he places his own image in a scene, however, we can draw a few conclusions about his thoughts concerning his artistic authority.
Christmas Homecoming, Norman Rockwell, 1948 
Oil on canvas, 35 ½” x 33 ½” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, December 25, 1948 
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1978.10 
©1948 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 
It's well-known that Rockwell worked from meticulously staged sets, from photographs and live models. The models were usually family members and his neighbors in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He used himself as a model many times too, inserting himself into crowd scenes, in a time-honored artistic tradition. In Christmas Homecoming, 1948, he is prominent, with his iconic pipe, just to the right of the hugging couple. There are two painters in this large family: Grandma Moses is pictured on the right as the frail granny. All eyes are happily on the couple; glee abounds. It strikes me that Rockwell's image of himself is significantly different. It is not all smiles. The man holds his pipe thoughtfully between his pursed lips. His eyebrows are raised, his chin is drawn down and his eyes are wide. None of his facial muscles—minutely described—form a smile. His is an analytical, observing face, the face of someone who is not emotionally involved, but is interested in the emotions. He is playing his holly-bedecked seasonal, family role. The normative role playing gives him cover to take his private mental notes.
The Discovery, Norman Rockwell, 1956 
Oil on canvas, 35 ¼” x 32 ½” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, December 29, 1956 
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, NRACT.1973.5 
©1956 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 
The artist's eye—Rockwell's own—is the lens through which we see The Discovery, which was The Saturday Evening Post cover for December 29, 1956, the issue just after Christmas. With Santa's suit discovered behind him in the parental bureau and surprised to have his father (we fill in) catch him, the boy's face registers not only the surprise of being caught snooping, but of the inescapable shock of oncoming disillusionment. He is putting two and two together facing Father, through whose very eye we are looking. And Father is no other than unmediated Norman Rockwell: He has left his iconic pipe on the dresser—just like Santa would leave his pipe behind in a story of Christmas morning, when a child is enchanted to find that is faith has not been undermined, that Santa had really been there.

How could we get closer to Rockwell than this? It's as intimate as his work gets, for he always paints from the outside, theatrically. Though invisible to us, here he is squarely within the narration, central to the action that is defined by what he sees with his own eyes and by his son's reaction to his literal presence.

But what is Rockwell's point of view? He presents the little boy comically, not as sad or requiring sympathy. He catches him just before understanding or sentiment has set in. Nothing suggests that the narrator/Rockwell feels guilt, empathy or responsibility for his part in the scene. He remains an observer who takes the long view—literally out of the room, past the leafy wall paper to the ivy planter—a fabulous detail of perspective worked quietly into the whole tableau. He deflects emotional response to a situation "typical Americans" could interpret as fraught with emotion on both sides. Parents no more want to disclose that Santa's not real than they want to have that first discussion about sex. Since the narrator here is Rockwell himself, we get an ambiguous, not entirely flattering view of the father. Father remains in the character of the professional illustrator, the observer finding material for a great story he can tell with style in outstanding realistic painterly technique. His son is only the model in the story.
Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell, 1959 
Oil on canvas, 44 ½” x 34 1/3” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 13, 1960 
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, NRACT.1973.19 
©1959 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN 

Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait, a 1959 Post cover, would seem to be the occasion in which Norman Rockwell reveals himself. But again, this is a magazine cover and the mission is to sell the issue, not himself. By 1959 Rockwell would have been a celebrity himself, so his image would have been a legitimate subject. He handles this, though, in his professional, self-effacing, ironic way. He knows how to tell a great story without getting into the middle of it, even when the title character is Norman Rockwell. This painting has been written about by many, with emphasis on the contrast between the image of the public man—produced on the canvas under the self-portraits of Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh—while the mirrored image and rear images of himself—resemble an elderly turtle with long wrinkly neck and outsized derriere. The whole piece is in fact designed to deny us a look at Norman Rockwell. He gives us a teasing, incomplete idealized portrait over the famous, stenciled non-signature.

I think the message of this painting is that he has nothing more to tell us about himself; that he's contented to be where he is in the art world, an artist admired for his superior workmanship and and Yankee work ethic, who is not seeking greatness. His mirror is a traditional, 18th century design, all New England, Federal period—all-American, and propped up on a vernacular caned, country chair. The man it reflects is workmanly and opaque—those good, New England virtues, of which keeping one's counsel is certainly one. 

The easel, which held a horseshoe when he portrayed a youthful illustrator drawing blanks in 1938, now bears the helmet of a Roman legionnaire, thus making a connection to the grandeur and authority of antiquity, bolstering the authority lent by the great European self-portraits on the right. On the (American) left, he's hung sketches of himself that amount to cartoons, all with exaggerated facial expressions that mimic self-important expressions, caricatures of a portrait-worthy subject. The very act of self-portraiture, this suggests, is attached to traditions from another world, traditions he can only imitate irreverently because they require him to wear a nonsensical hat of traditions that don't fit. 

Although Rockwell balances his pallet of oils and holds a paintbrush to the canvas, the portrait he's making is either a charcoal or graphite drawing, as its texture—even in reproduction—attests. Are we even to take this drawing to be his product? 

I think that Triple Self-Portrait is a sort of artistic shrug. This cover seems to be his way of affirming that his artistic ambition was to be the cleverest, most innovative and successful of commercial artists, "and here's your proof if any doubt remains," he seems to add. He likes being work-a-day Rockwell, not Van Gogh of the legendary inner life.

Ultimately, I think that Triple Self-Portrait isn't a self-portrait at all. It's a portrait that illustrator Norman Rockwell devised of a man the public took to be The Artist Norman Rockwell. The real Rockwell will always be seen from behind as a comic figure with icons of his trade. He was a master worker of artful illusion—of the world he wished magazines would not only sell, but could invoke through him—as long as he could keep out of it.

Art Critic, Norman Rockwell, 1955 
Oil on canvas, 39 ½” x 36 ¼” 
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955 
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1998.4 
©1955 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN