Deborah Solomon recently published American Mirror, a biography of Norman Rockwell. I’m not much for writing reviews, but I found myself frustrated with Mirror for a number of reasons, not the least being that Solomon managed several hundred pages about an artist without once getting seriously into his technique. It's unfortunate, because the most interesting anecdote in the book involves Rockwell's technique and William de Kooning. The story is told by Peter Schjeldah and repeated in his recent New Yorker comment:
“[Rockwell] drew and painted angelically, with subtle technical ingenuity, involving layered colors, that is still underappreciated. I took instruction on this point from de Kooning, who opened a book to a reproduction, handed me a magnifying glass, and made me peruse Rockwell’s minuscule but almost fiercely animated painterly touch. “See?” said de Kooning. “Abstract Expressionism!”
Now there’s something. De Kooning’s comment reminded me of the hours I spent on my first visit to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. It was the summer I finally took up painting, and I’d been hiding out on a dairy farm with a family of Quakers that could have all been in a Rockwell illustration. Once you start painting, you become obsessed with brushstrokes. At the museum, most of my time was spent with my nose hovering as close to the canvases as the guards would tolerate.
Images are not just content, there are things like technique and execution involved, and it’s easy even for other artists to miss this. The thing with Rockwell, however, is that his brushstrokes are not only animated--at times, squirming like caterpillars on the canvas—in close quarters, they reject any discernible logic. How orderly images appear from this din is frankly remarkable. Rockwell experimented with heavily textured base layers, used charcoal liberally in finished oil paintings, and employed a number of other techniques that remain unusual and totally unexpected given his content. This is evidence of a deep artistic mind, of something dynamic happening quite literally beneath the surface.
Really, if you have any interest in brushstrokes, your reaction to Rockwell will be something like, “… Holy [redacted]!”
What was Rockwell up to? Deborah Solomon thinks she found the answer. Rockwell was a closeted homosexual and possibly a pedophile, a negligent husband who drove his second wife to alcoholism and maybe suicide, a crappy father, and an absent brother and son. Rockwell might have been gay, but he certainly didn't have to be- Solomon’s speculations on his life and work are irresponsibly ignorant of homosociality, to say nothing of her tone, which borders on mocking and salacious whenever she brings up anything regarding his sexuality and relationships. He didn’t seem to like his first wives very much, but neither do most Americans. And while drawing connections from homosexuality to pedophilia has long been discredited, both Solomon and her editors seem to have missed these studies. (Apparently, he hired child models, and then stopped hiring them when they grew older. This is interpreted as an obsession with prepubescent boys, but the obvious explanation--that they suddenly grew out of a particular look, and therefore no longer made sense as models--never seems to occur to Solomon.)
In reality, much of Rockwell’s work predates the sexual revolution and the sexualization of everything, including children, close, same-sex relationships, and the Gaze. At some point in the 20th century, the Gaze became irrevocably sexualized. In 2014, to look long at another human is almost always a sexual act, and so when Rockwell invites us to look long at children, or men in uniform, we drag our cultural chauvinism into the task and look at a 1940 Saturday Evening Post cover the same way we leer at the current cover of Esquire or Cosmopolitan. Our magazine covers are about sex, so everyone else’s must be, too. Unfortunately, Solomon mistakes this bias for insight.
Solomon’s treatment of these issues feels sensational, crass, and more than a little exploitive, especially when Rockwell’s behavior can easily be explained by his documented lack of emotional intelligence. For all her conjecture and homoerotic allegorizing, the more significant insight is the one that Solomon never has. Rockwell’s life appeared ordered but was really disordered, an incredible misdirection achieved through painting. Rockwell painted scenes he never saw, feelings he never felt, and secure relationships and community he never had. Or did he? His psychoanalyst, the imminent Erik Erikson, supposedly thought that all of Rockwell's happiness was in his art. If this is the case, Rockwell did experience all these things, he just experienced them through painting.
Rockwell's real life happened on canvas. If his human relationships and activities were as empty as Solomon claims, it’s because they were barely secondary. For many artists, art is an allegory for life. For Rockwell, it seems to have been the opposite. His life was ordered tranquility concealing a disordered mess. Because his paintings depicted an even greater ordered tranquility, you failed to notice that they too were made of a disordered mess. The mess was in the brushstrokes. The whole time Rockwell worked, we had an American artist really approaching truth, composing Thanksgiving dinner with the mad technique of abstract expressionism. Rockwell’s life was like his painting, and his painting was like the country he documented: a cacophony of wild, uncertain, unresolved gestures that somehow, incredibly, form a whole.