|Not exactly Ted Williams (1939-1960) |
meets Carl Yastrzemski (1961-1983),
but Bostonians like to think so
MAY 23, 2014
By JAMES B. STEWART
“Rockwell’s greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliché.”
In that Washington Post criticism of a 2010 exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings at the Smithsonian, Blake Gopnik joined a long line of prominent critics attacking Rockwell, the American artist and illustrator who depicted life in mid-20th-century America and died in 1978.
As I blogged in 2010: "If you want a picture of Mr. Gopnik's ideal future, imagine a boot stamping on Norman Rockwell's face -- forever. (But not, let me hasten to add, a well-painted realist picture of a boot stamping on a face. Instead, say, a picture of a surrealist boot stamping on a cubist face with Jackson Pollock-like blood splatters on the floor.)"
“Norman Rockwell was demonized by a generation of critics who not only saw him as an enemy of modern art, but of all art,” said Deborah Solomon, whose biography of Rockwell, “American Mirror,” was published last year. “He was seen as a lowly calendar artist whose work was unrelated to the lofty ambitions of art,” she said, or, as she put it in her book, “a cornball and a square.” The critical dismissal “was obviously a source of great pain throughout his life,” Ms. Solomon added.
It should always have been obvious that Rockwell was a great popular image creator in the mode of a movie director. (He also had tremendous technical skill as a painter, of course, but it's his narrative creativity that stands out.) Rockwell (1894-1978) reminds me of Frank Capra (1897-1991), although Capra worked from others' scripts.
This doesn't necessarily mean it makes sense to pay lots of money for a painting that was created to be reproduced. Similarly, while it would be kind of cool to own the original master reels of It's a Wonderful Life that Capra worked on himself, I'm not really into saint's relics and would rather buy a DVD of Capra's masterpiece for $15. But, then, the same could be said for a lot of works of art, which often are underwhelming when you are standing there finally looking at it in person, but your feet are hurting. (Noteworthy exceptions: cathedral architecture and Michelangelo's 13' tall statue of David.)
One reason why paintings by famous artists sell for so much to rich guys these days even though interest in painting is declining, is that most paintings were actually touched by a brush held by the great man himself. In contrast, Silicon Valley is likely full of guys who would like to compete with each other to own The Original Star Wars, but nobody is exactly sure what it is.
But Rockwell is now undergoing a major critical and financial reappraisal. This week, the major auction houses built their spring sales of American art around two Rockwell paintings: “After the Prom,” at Sotheby’s, and “The Rookie,” at Christie’s. “After the Prom” sold for $9.1 million on Wednesday; “The Rookie” for $22.5 million on Thursday.
In December, “Saying Grace” set an auction record for Rockwell, selling at Sotheby’s for $46 million.
Rockwell isn’t yet at the level of Francis Bacon (top price at auction: $142.4 million), Picasso ($104.5 million) or Andy Warhol ($105.4 million) — all of whom critics eventually embraced — but he’s poised to join a select handful of artists whose work is instantly recognizable not just for its artistic quality but, for better or worse, the many millions it took to acquire one.
Apart from any critical reappraisal, Rockwell’s paintings show that in art, as well as in the stock market, it can pay to be a contrarian. Rockwell’s paintings have turned out to be a singularly good investment. ... “Rockwell was so out of favor, there was ample room for appreciation,” Mr. Moses said. ...
The explanation for the sudden and, to many, improbable surge in the price of Rockwell paintings dates to at least 2001, when the Guggenheim Museum mounted a major retrospective of Rockwell’s work. Coming just after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the show may have touched a nerve with an American public hungering for the reassurance of traditional American values captured by Rockwell’s vision. “That was the big turning point,” Ms. Solomon said. “He finally was getting art world recognition.” Still, some critics were incensed by the exhibition. “It shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists,” Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice.
The role of simple junior high school-style ethnic animosity in the decades of trashing Rockwell should not be overlooked.
But the show set an attendance record.
The year after the Guggenheim show, “Rosie the Riveter,” one of Rockwell’s most famous images, sold for close to $5 million at Sotheby’s, setting a record for the artist. The painting was later sold again for an undisclosed price to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., the museum founded by the Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
In 2006, “Breaking Home Ties” set another record, selling for $15.4 million, far above its $4 million to $6 million estimate. (The buyer is believed to have been H. Ross Perot, the former presidential candidate and founder of Electronic Data Systems. The painting has been seen hanging in his office.)
Rockwell also gained a Hollywood stamp of approval. Two of the country’s most famous film directors, George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Steven Spielberg (“E.T.”) were acquiring Rockwells. Rockwell “is a great story teller, and he used cinematic devices,” Mr. Lucas told an interviewer for the Smithsonian, which mounted the exhibition of his and Mr. Spielberg’s Rockwell collections, “Telling Stories,” in 2010. “He ‘cast’ a painting,” Mr. Lucas said. “It wasn’t just a random group of characters.”