Sunday, February 08, 2009

Teaching Thursday: Norman Rockwell and Conn College

On February 23, 2000, a couple of Greek architectural history grad students specializing in Byzantium took a weekend road-trip up to New England to visit Mass MoCA (which had just opened in New Adams) and the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. The prime mover of the trip was Nikolas Bakirtzis who wanted to make a pilgrimage to Norman Rockwell's house. The other traveler (which was I) had grown up in the U.S. and was more derisive of the saccharine Americana projected in Rockwell's utopia. I was much more interested in the high art world, I wanted to see an abandoned mill now housing New York's largest minimalist works (Mass MoCA). Nikolas had grown up in Greece but had spent one year in Urbana-Champaign, while his parents had an academic fellowship at the University of Illinois. At the age of 15, Nikolas fell in love with the America he met, and Norman Rockwell encapsulated for him that experience. I was a little younger when I first met America, but I came to stay; my family had immigrated for good to Columbia, S.C. So, my American experience fermented through puberty and exploded in typical rebellion (e.g. punk rock). As I think through the Punk Archaeology project now (see earlier postings), I realize that punk was just another phase in romanticizing America and deeply rooted in the traditions it subverted. In my most recent definition, punk begins in 1935, but there will be more about that later. As we commemorate Lux Interior, lead singer of the Cramps who died last week, we are reminded that 30s swing and 50s rockabilly gave punk its basic language. See obituary, Ben Sisario," Lux Interior, 62, Singer in the Punk-Rock Era is Dead," New York Times (Feb. 5, 2008), p. A18, and Bill Caraher's posting on Punk Archaeology blog.

I have reason to think about Norman Rockwell almost a decade after my pilgrimage to Stockridge from a new perspective, that of a teacher. The interview of a Connecticut College alumna in, "The Rise of the House of Rockwell," New York Times (by Carol Kino, Feb. 8, 2009, p. AR26), forces me to ask a basic pedagogical question. What
kind of enduring influence can an art history professor have? As a visiting lecturer at Connecticut College, the question is even more specifically localized. Art history's primary goal is to teach young students about the highest forms of art and culture. Vernacular expressions typically fall on the wayside. Even after postmodernism's erosion of the high-low divide, the art history curriculum remains entrenched in the classics. If anything, Connecticut College is exceptional these days because it has managed to incorporate what other programs might consider lesser. Unusual for most departments, for example, is Connecticut College's architectural historian Abigail van Slyck, a renown authority on American vernacular architecture (houses, summer camps, libraries, etc.) She does not supplement some Alberti, Palladio, Ruskin or Le Corbusier specialist, but stands on her own. And the ancient/medieval historian, Joseph Alchermes, studies spolia, decrepit houses in Greece, and other such degradations of the canon. The modernist, Barbara Zabel, studies the machine and assemblages, and the Renaissance specialist, Robert Baldwin, thinks of money, race, gender and music more than connoisseurship. Connecticut College's Art History Department may have not been so inclusive 30 years ago.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Rockwell Museum, studied art history at
Connecticut College but her experience only negatively encouraged her future career. In the 1970s, art historians had great derision for popular arts and that very scorn galvanized Ms. Moffatt:

"Ms. Moffatt began working there [Rockwell Museum] as a part-time guide in the summer of 1977, between her junior and senior years at Connecticut College, where she was studying art history and Asian studies. From the start she was struck by 'the incredible connection that our visitors had with the paintings,' she said. 'People would be moved to tears. People would be moved to laughter. People would be lined up around the building, waiting an hour to get in.' Yet in her college classes, she said, Rockwell received short shrift. 'If he was even put up on a slide at all, it was with great derision and scorn. It was very galvanizing for me.'"

Moffatt's Connecticut College experience begs the question. What may we be deriding in our curriculum in 2009 that will undercut some future cultural sensitivity? The case with Rockwell has changed dramatically. The turning point happened the year
after my friend and I visited Stockbridge. In 2001, Rockwell entered the bastions of high art when the Guggenheim Museum hosted its first Rockwell exhibition, "Pictures for the American People," co-organized by the High Museum in Atlanta. Yet the question of inclusion has not quite been settled, as it became obvious a few weeks ago with the death of Andrew Wyeth (Jan. 16, 2009). Considered by many to be a populist, Wyeth's figurative style captured the general public but left the art world in ambivalence. The media stunt of the Helga drawings in 1986 and Wyeth's Republican politics did not help his reputation among art circles. Wyeth's death has sparked again the debate between purists and populists (where Norman Rockwell is always implicated). Robert Storr (dean of Yale School of Art) seemed to be pitched against Kathleen Foster (Curator of American Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art) on the airwaves and press.

The high-low art divide was intelligently thematized in a fantastic exhibit at my newest favorite local institution, the New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA). Its
Sanford B.D. Low Illustration Collection prominently displays Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, J.C. Leyendecker and other illustrators as central to the American canon. In the current exhibition "Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators 1850-1950," illustrates this very American juxtaposition of high and low art especially by artists who worked on both sides of commerce. Many American painters worked as illustrators in magazines and newspapers. N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth's own father, is an important figure in this conflict, best known for his illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island (1911). My personal favorites from the exhibition are a drawing by Maxfield Parrish for Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Lyonel Feininger's Kin-der-Kinds cartoon for the Chicago Sunday Tribune (1906) and works by the Philadelphian "Eight," John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens (who, I learned from the show, went to my high school). I am thrilled that on March 6, the NBMAA will open a new exhibit, The Eight and American Modernisms, co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and featuring 70 paintings. If you remember from earlier postings, my interest on The Eight began with George Bellows, whose biography was written by Byzantine archaeologist Charles Morgan. I am intrigued that the NBMAA exhibition title has "modernisms" in the plural. My personal discovery of The Eight is also conditioned by the art-historical curriculum. As a student, even in the 1980s, we learned all about European avant-gardes and nothing about American figurative painters.

Perhaps, it is "modernisms" in the plural that today's art history professor can aspire to. Hopefully, our teaching at Connecticut College will positively influence the future curators of American art. Although, I suppose, negative influence goes a long way, as well.

One of the most interesting endeavors spearheaded by Ms. Moffatt at the Rockwell Museum is ProjectNorman, an internet database that will go live in November. In addition to massive digitization, Project
Norman has sought to identify all the people that served as Rockwell's live models. For the 1958 illustration, "The Runaway" (shown above), Clarence Barrett and Eddie Locke have been identified as the sitters. Ms. Moffatt hopes to use Flickr to identify more individuals. Many of the models were from Stockbridge, where Rockwell lived from 1953 until his death in 1978. Rockwell typically took photographs of people and based his paintings on these photos. The paintings then became illustrations. Identifying the live models places attention on the fascinating and convoluted sixpartite chain of media transmission: 1) the all-American individual poses in front of Rockwell's camera, 2) a photograph of that pose is printed, 3) a painting is executed based strictly on the photograph, 4) the painting is photographed into an illustration, 5) the illustration is printed in Saturday Evening Post, McCalls and other magazines, 6) the magazines are shipped by mail to millions of all-American readers back to the reality of Main Street. Speaking as an archaeologist, the materiality of this transmission, tracing it back to the original daily life elevates the illustrative process of American life to the highest chambers of art and theory.

Roland Barthes or Walter Benjamin could really have a field day with ProjectNorman. In contrast, they might have less to say about some contemporary high art. For instance, the most recent exhibition that I saw in the Museum of Modern Art in
New York. Marlede Dumas' retrospective Measuring Your Own Grave left me disapointed. See Peter Schjeldahl, "Unpretty Pictures: A Marlene Dumas Retrospective," New Yorker (Dec. 22, 2008). Dumas has been discussed in relation to figurative artists like Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud; I was interested to see the intersections between the figurative and the abstract. But ultimately, I prefered to see the Francis Bacons downstairs.

A nice treat at the MoMA, however, was a small show on the Esquire covers by my favorite Greek American George Lois. The exhibit focused closely on the steps of manipulation. As in the case of Rockwell, there is a clear sequence of photographing a model and basing an illustration on the photograph. Some of Lois' famous covers include Andy Warhol swimming in a soup can (Esquire, May 1969), or a composite face of Bod Dylan, Fidel Castro, Malcom X, and John F. Kennedy (left, Esquire, Sept. 1965). To read more about the show, see Charles McGrath, "Cover Story: The King of Visceral Design," New York Times (April 27, 2008). Lois, famously created the "I Want My MTV" ad campaign. For further reading, see Lois' book Iconic America (2007), co-authored with Tommy Hilfinger, and Kurt Andersen's interview on Studio 360, "Rosenquist, Still Lifes, Jingles" (Apr. 28, 2008).


laurie norton moffatt said...

I offer a timeline correction to Kostis Kourelis' blog comments on the influence, positive or negative, that a professor can have on a student's future career direction. I attended Connecticut College from 1974 - 1978, (not during the 1960s as Mr. Kourelis suggests) where I majored in Art History. I spent my junior year studying art history at Williams College. Neither distinguished art history department included Norman Rockwell in their curricula, although Williams College's Lane Faison was an early respective professional voice on Rockwell's work. Carol Kino notes: "Ms. Moffatt began working there [at Norman Rockwell Museum] as a part-time guide in the summer of 1977, between her junior and senior years at Connecticut College, where she was studying art history and Asian studies." Both colleges had gone co-educational in the same year, 1969, so I was among the first fully co-educational class at each school. I had never read the Saturday Evening Post and my first exposure to Norman Rockwell was during my summer job working at the Museum. It is there that I immersed myself in Rockwell's work through authoring the catalogue raisonne and subsequently came to study the field of American Illustration. Norman Rockwell Museum's Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies will invite the very sort of discourse Mr. Kourelis muses on in his blog. To my knowledge this will be the first academic center fully devoted to inviting scholarship in illustration visual studies. It will link the work of museums, libraries, archives and universities in the field of illustration, such as the work of the New Britain Museum of American Art cited by Mr. Kourelis. I hope he will be inspired to make another trip to the Museum to learn more about it and perhaps participate as a scholar.


My greatest apologies to Ms. Moffatt for making her 10 years senior. I apologize for hastily misprinting 1967 instead of 1977. At the same time, I am thrilled to receive a comment by the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. My first visit was truly transformative; I realize this more so now that my own research is turning towards questions of art, illustration, archaeology. I look forward to my next visit to the Museum and perhaps the beginning of an academic conversation made more speedy by the power of blogging. Please, accept my apologies for the misprint in my excited posting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kostis. Interesting blog. But, I think your characterization of Art History departments does some disservice to other departments, and maybe the field in general. Conn sounds great, but many departments have people looking at materials far beyond the usual "high art". My own department alone has scholars working on: sprawl, the Sims, highways, grids (of all sorts and in all materials and immaterials), German toasters, Turkish 1930s vernacular houses, Indian popular paper images, maps, Puerto-Rican sugar plantations, real-estate depreciation and ruins in 18th century Paris, cupboards in 16th-century Italian houses, and yes, paintings, churches and sculpture.

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States