A recent business trip took me to Washington D.C. And I was invited to a party at the National Portrait Gallery. In the same building is the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. I decided to head to the party early to see the current exhibit, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. That's right, the two famed directors are big Norman Rockwell fans and from what I've heard, never loan their paintings. But in D.C. you can see a surprising number of Rockwell paintings spanning the artist's lengthy career. The show is up through January 2, 2011.
I don't think Rockwell gets the respect he should from the art world. He's often written off as just another illustrator. But this show demonstrates his immense talent. And I think Rockwell was a pioneer of a style I'll call hyper-realism; art that transcends photo realism to create something that can't be expressed in the real world. That's a trend the art world has more recently embraced (particularly in sculpture) with artists like Duane Hansen and Ron Mueck.
There's a lot to like at this show, particularly if you work in advertising. Rockwell did a lot of work for corporate America and his paintings deliver wonderful moments from the American dream. Take Merry Christmas Grandma . . . We Came In Our New Plymouth (1950, charcoal and crayon on paper). There's not a car in sight. Instead, we see what owning car meant to the modern, mid-century American family.
I also love the way Rockwell is capable of depicting the style of the moment. With paintings that cover at least 40 years of American style, Rockwell had to have a perfect sense for what defined the now. Like the young woman in Window Washer (1960, oil on canvas). She's the definition of the modern, 1960s career girl.
I can see why movie directors would like these paintings; they're perfectly composed, beautifully lit, and executed with a precision that rivals some of histories best films. These are also images that define America. I'll end with what was my favorite painting in the show. The Connoisseur (1962, oil on canvas mounted on board) is a portrait of a man contemplating a Jackson-Pollack-like painting. I can see something of me in this painting. And that might be what makes Rockwell so enthralling; that we can see something of our collective selves in his work.