Now Buffalo has its own beer cans. Giant beer cans. Labatt's Beer cans. Painted on grain silos. Good news, bad news: it's hard to tell. Certainly a tourist attraction, if nothing else. In this case, scale has replaced artistry.
Sometime in 1960 Willem de Kooning commented to his friend Jasper Johns that the gallery dealer Leo Castelli could sell beer cans if he put his mind to it. Johns, not one to pass up a good idea when he heard one,, went about replicating two Ballantine Ale cans in bronze and painting all the details of the labels, right down to the famous three rings, in oil paint. The twin cans sit on a stirred up plinth, magnificent in their gleaming, slightly irregular surfaces, quietly proclaiming their artfulness while coyly denying that they are out-and-out imitations of actual objects.
Now Buffalo has its own beer cans. Giant beer cans. Labatt's Beer cans. Painted on grain silos. Good news, bad news: it's hard to tell. Certainly a tourist attraction, if nothing else. In this case, scale has replaced artistry.
When I was a aspiring teen artist growing up in Albany, NY, the walls of my bedroom were plastered with covers from The Saturday Evening Post, my handy portable art gallery in a house and a city where anything as esoteric as painting was nowhere in sight. Of course, prominent among The Post artists on display was the work of Norman Rockwell, America’s most beloved artist and the one I planned to emulate in my upcoming career as a famous magazine illustrator.
As Deborah Solomon tells us in the introduction to her captivating biography, “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” by the time she was hanging art posters on the walls of her bedroom, the artist so honored was Helen Frankenthaler, the precocious young painter who wowed the art world in the early 1950s with her abstract veils of fluid color and spontaneous brushwork. By then modern art was fully entrenched in the consciousness of those in the know, and its latest dominating manifestation, Abstract-Expressionism, had wiped such antiquated figures as Norman Rockwell entirely off the art map.
“Rockwell? Oh, God,” she writes. “He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values modernism sought to topple.” My “Oh, God, not Rockwell” moment came in high school when I watched my art teacher earnestly turning the charming city scene outside the classroom window into a stack of unsteady cubes. Cubism became my passion and it quickly replaced my erstwhile love for Rockwell’s cozy vision of American life.
The trajectory of Rockwell’s reputation in the wider art world didn’t at all parallel my own evolving view of the artist. The cognoscenti of the art world scorned him from the start, never considering him more than a lowly illustrator, and a sentimental one at that. (Rockwell himself never thought he was more than an illustrator: When in 1968 a young New York art dealer by the name of Bernie Danenberg wanted to give him a show, Solomon quotes him saying to the director of a museum where he kept a few dozen works, “I have a misguided art dealer here who thinks I am an artist. Humor him.”) By the mid-60s the art world had radically reshuffled its priorities, thanks mainly to the arrival of the Pop artists. Figuration ─ albeit of an odd, commercially derived sort ─ was back. And, as it happened, so was Norman Rockwell.
In 1973 Peter Schjeldahl, then a New York Times writer (now The New Yorker art critic), gave “the first non-hostile review of Rockwell’s work by a hip young art critic,” as Solomon describes it. Still in catchup mode, I was shocked by Schjeldahl’s casual assertion that “the gap between Rockwell and modernism is just a gap, not a battle line.” A minimalist at the time, I didn’t cotton to the idea of figures trooping through my painting. I still saw it as a battle line.
It took me until the mid-80s to finally come full circle. A moment of nostalgia got me thinking about my favorite Rockwell Post cover back when I was a kid-artist. It was called Shuffleton’s Barbershop and held aprominent place on my wall and in my memory. Painted in 1950, it showed a view through the window of a closed barbershop, revealing a shadowy interior where a black cat peered inward and the embers in a potbellied stove glowed red in the dim and a barber’s chair sat empty, its gleaming chrome details caught in a shaft of yellow light that cut across bare wooden floor boards. The light came from a brightly lit back room where three elderly men can be seen playing classical musical instruments with perhaps a fourth figure out of view to complete an afterhours quartet. (Solomom insists that this must represent the visible trio--an odd classical combo--not taking into account the possibility of a hidden fourth player.) It seemed to me to be a space enveloped in a melancholy that had been suddenly and joyfully dispelled by that bright back room. I recalled the surge of emotions that it stirred and my adolescent judgment that it must be capital-letter Great Art.
So I looked it up and discovered that my teenage judgment wasn’t that far off. Maybe it wasn’t Great Art but it was a damned good painting by any standard. I dragged out my ancient copy of My Adventures as an Illustrator (Rockwell’s 1960 autobiography) and, much to my surprise, found among the wacky caricatures, overly rigged scenarios and those cursed Colonial America fantasies, many excellent, well-composed, if not downright beautiful paintings. I liked Norman Rockwell again. I had been rehabilitated right along with Rockwell’s reputation.
Solomon thinks so much of Shuffleton’s Barbershop, she has titled a chapter after it. She says that the painting, which to her is more of an image of loneliness and exclusion than of joy, “ranks as one of his five or six best works.” Rockwell retains the American small town coziness but now, Solomon asserts, he has flawlessly melded it to 17th century Dutch realism to make what is a “remarkably evolved magazine cover.”
Like Rockwell, Solomon knows her audience. Many art people will read this book, no doubt. But it’s likely that many more will be focused on Rockwell, the supreme American storyteller in paint, the one artist who best represents a distant, memory-burnished time when people said hello in the streets and cops gave counsel to runaways kids, when a whole neighborhood greeted a returning soldier, when boys (never girls with Rockwell) ran freely to the swimmin’ hole with their shaggy mutts at their heels. None of these Rockwell painted tales was quite real ─ as the adjective “Rockwellian” suggests ─ but by limiting and focusing the emotional effects and meticulously rendering the visual effects, they were often highly believable and emotionally satisfying.
Many readers will not care a hoot about art talk. They only want the man and his stories. Perhaps it is with those readers in mind that Solomon keeps her art analysis soft. She goes so far with a painting but then trails off. She avoids close formal scrutiny the way Rockwell avoided angst-ridden characters. For example, in her commentary on the famous Freedom from Want, she writes that Rockwell “has achieved a new level of descriptive realism,” adding that the white still life of the table setting is “one of the most ambitious plays of white-against white since Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1. Very nice. She successfully captures the general sense of the painting as a painting. But she skips over the tough talk, which in my view must deal with Rockwell’s bold handling of space: how Rockwell compresses depth in such a way that the perspective of the table is forestalled and Grandma and that gigantic turkey loom forward toward the viewer and the oddly cramped and cropped faces march up the two sides of the composition, flattening out space as they go. And then in a final touch, a brownish bowl of fruit clings to the bottom edge making it seem that bird and fruit somehow exist on the same spatial plane.
At a number of points, buffing up Rockwell’s artistic credentials, Solomon sets out teases about how Rockwell might be seen in a more thoroughgoing analysis. For example, his penchant for storytelling and jokiness and his reliance on photography, she says, offers the possibility of viewing Rockwell as something of a proto-postmodernist. Really? It would be interesting to hear how Rockwell’s quiet wit and sweet irony might fit in with the overblown and grotesque humor and the often vicious bathos of so many contemporary postmod artists. I could barely wait for this connection to be made. But, alas, Solomon fails to revisit this fascinating idea, and I am left wondering if, say, "Tattoo Artist" with its isolated figures situated in a no-space of a wall decorated with tattoo designs could rightfully be seen as a precursor to similar contemporary figure treatments.
Perhaps this is for another book. The book she did write is a graceful interweaving of light art commentary and biographical facts. Solomon is marvelous at ferreting out connections to Rockwell’s life and his art. After helpfully observing that Rosie the Riveter was directly based on the twisted pose of Michelangelo’s prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, she quickly turns to the controversy over the size of about Rosie’s upper arms, which so offended Rockwell’s slender model, Mary Doyle. She never expected to see “a female behemoth sprung from the dark lagoon of Rockwell’s imagination,” as Solomon colorfully describes it. Rockwell called up his model and apologized for making her look so mannish.
Solomon states that the only intimacy that Rockwell seemed to require was the company of his male friends, even asking directly the question, Was Rockwell gay. The answer, as it can only be at this late date, is unknown, and in any case hardly germane considering the wholly different set of attitudes toward homosexuality in Rockwell's day. The artist's preference for male companionship, however, is certainly born out in his relationships with women, his last wife, Molly Punderson, the only one of the three who seemed to have had a relatively comfortable relationship with him. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was a disaster from the start and ended in divorce. It's not even abundantly clear that they had a sex life. His second wife, Mary was, according to Solomon’s account, a singularly tragic case. She was a talented woman who may very well have been pushed along toward alcoholism and psychological derailment by a husband who was inattentive, demanding in what she wore and how she acted, and dismissive of her needs. It was clear from the early days that he much preferred the company of his fishing trip buddies to spending time with his wife and children. Solomon fashions what amounts to a mini-bio of Mary, following closely her sad downward spiral to an early death.
Solomon is generally sympathetic and respectful of the many windings of Rockwell’s psychological insecurities. But at times she implies too strongly that the artist had pedophilic impulses. An incident where Rockwell asked the parents’ for the pants of one of his boy models in order to check the color comes close to an indictment of the artist. “It’s an unsettling anecdote,” she writes. “We are made to wonder if Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.” It makes Solomon wonder, not necessarily the rest of us. The artist was famously persnickety about the exactitude of an object’s color. He repeatedly said he was incapable of imagining an object and its color without the object in hand. Maybe he wasjust trying to get the color right.
In the ‘50s Rockwell was a patient of Erik Erikson, the emigre psychiatrist who coined the term “identity crisis” and the man whom the artist leaned on for support during and after the time when Mary was falling further into alcoholism and mental distress. Rockwell told Erikson of his “intense” relationships with men and his difficulties in responding to women. (Note how seldom Rockwell depicts women as a central theme in his Post covers; his one image of a Hollywood starlet shows a fake-coy woman nearly obscured by a crowd of hierodulic reporters.) Solomon uses these facts throughout her book, and not always to good effect. She sees the big cop in The Runaway as possessing a “tantalizing masculinity,” when probably all Rockwell intended was to contrast his size with the diminutive boy. She finds Rockwell’s very first Post cover, Boy with Baby Carriage, “psychologically intense,” the image suggesting “a birth narrative” complete with womb symbol. This is a ridiculous reading. As cigars are sometimes just cigars, some joke paintings are simply jokes. Skinny and un-athletic, “a bean pole without the beans,” as Rockwell described himself, he most likely did feel inadequate about his manhood. But here he is merely deflecting these feelings ─ laying them out for the world to see ─ showing his command through a hilarious painting.
Where does Rockwell stand as an artist today? Solomon gives him his due, recognizing Rockwell’s originality and intelligence and his prowess as a storyteller. She sees him as pictorially inventive and in control of a superb painting technique. She never does quite ─ almost, but not quite ─ get around to allowing the artist entry into the pantheon of great American artists.
For my part, I’m ready to put him there right now. Who but Rockwell could come up with the marvelous self-deprecating comedy of identity of Triple Self-Portrait? Who but Rockwell could have approached with such unfettered candor the image of the six-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white school in The Problem We All Live With? And then there’s my favorite Rockwell “fine art” parody, The Connoisseur with its micro-managed “Jackson Pollock” and a man who from the back looks remarkably like Pollock’s famous peer Barnet Newman.
So, OK, here we go: in my Alphabetical List of Great American Painters I’m going to insert ─ jarring though it may be to some ─ the name Norman Rockwell right in there between Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko. It’s done: no more reassessing. Let’s finally give this fine American artist the place he deserves.
Writing in the Washington Post 2004, Sidney Lawrence compares a contemporary sculpture to Auguste Rodin's famous "The Thinker." The contemporary work is Robert Mueck's untitled, double-sized man that everyone calls "Big Man."
"'Big Man,'" Lawrence writes, "is Rodin's 'Thinker' for our times..."
If this is true, we might want to worry. We like to think that Rodin's naked, hunched figure is puzzling over something big, like, say, Descartes' algebraic negative roots, or why Napoleon was always sticking his hand in his vest for those portraits.
The flabby giant fashioned by Mueck (rhymes with Buick), on the other hand, doesn't exactly convince as a solid representative of the thinking class. He just looks too petulant, too sulky, to have much going on behind his furrowed fiberglass brow.
What's extraordinary is that these two sculptures -- one created in 1890, the other in 2000 -- appeared in Buffalo that year in what might be called a meeting of the mismatched minds. If you compare Muerk's figure with Rodin's multi-figure work the contrasts are even more dramatic. Rodin stunned the world with a bevy of ecstatic entwined lovers and jubilant flying figures. Today, if Muerk is any measure, it's enough for a big lump of a man to sit in a corner and sulk.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery had for a number of years been planning the comprehensive exhibition "Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation." With the arrival the gallery's new director, Louis Grachos, it was decided that the work of the first great modern sculptor would be joined by a concurrent exhibition of contemporary figure sculpture, called "Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture."
With the twin exhibitions Rodin's "The Thinker" and Mueck's "Big Man" were within pouting distance of each other. "Rodin" and "Bodily Space" were installed in adjacent galleries, but close enough for a studied comparison. (Size-wise, "Big Man" had a huge advantage: he measures 81 inches high and is more than half that much in width; the Rodin is a 1903 reduction of the famous giant bronze, coming in at a little under 15 inches high.)
The Rodin show itself would be a monumental event and rare opportunity to see this pivotal sculptor in such a broad collection. It contained some 60 bronzes that cover the entire range of the sculptor's prodigious output, including some of his best-known and revered works.
In addition to "The Thinker" were such famous pieces as "The Kiss" and "Monumental Head of Balzac," along with various full-figure (literally) studies of the novelist both nude and in the controversial robed versions. "The Cathedral" is among the more gentle and lyrical of Rodin's many sculptures of isolated hands, of which five others are on view -- including "Large Clenched Left Hand" and its horror-movie contortions.
Joining these are good-sized maquettes for two of Rodin's most compelling public sculptures, "Burgers of Calais" and "Gates of Hell." The last work -- in its full-scale form cast after the artist's death -- is a 20-foot-high bronze door teaming with gyrating figures. Its complexity and ambition is such that it occupied Rodin for 20 years, and over that time the sculptor used it freely as a kind of changing storehouse for completely separate and independent sculptures.
Because Rodin barely ever left a figure alone once it was made, the question of the many posthumous cast sculptures in the Cantor collection -- some, major pieces commissioned by Cantor himself -- are less problematic than they might be in the case of, say, Degas. Degas never intended his wax sculptures to be cast; Rodin wanted his work broadly known to the public and cast it freely, making multiple castings from different plasters, increasing or reduceding the size of a work and even ordering certain marble pieces to be rendered in bronze. He left the casting process mostly to skilled artisans, although he would reject or revise when a piece didn't meet his standards.
But still, Rodin left more than 5,000 plasters and molds to the French state with unlimited reproduction rights. Generally, posthumous casts are considered legitimate by most scholars and curators, according to Kenneth Wayne, the gallery curator of modern art and organizer of the Buffalo presentation of the show. Wayne, a Rodin scholar himself, says the posthumous Cantor Collection Rodins were cast "in very close consultation with Professor Albert Elsen of Stanford University, who was the world's leading expert on Rodin and also on bronze casting and copyright issues."
In fact, he adds, Elsen wrote the College Art Association's guidelines on the ethics of bronze casting.
In the exhibition, the labels told the story. The reduced version of the emotion-charged "The Three Shades" (1904), for example, is a 1981 Musee Rodin cast of 10. "Romeo and Juliette" was cast sometime before Rodin's death in 1917. The date of the casting of the 1903 reduction of "The Thinker" is unknown. One of Rodin's earliest pieces, the 1863-4 "Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose," was most likely cast in the 1970s at the highly regarded Couberin Foundry.
The Albright-Knox collection aded to the multiple riches of this exhibition with their own life-size "Eve" and "Age of Bronze," both of which are represented in the Cantor collection by smaller versions. As Rodin's first full-sized figure to go on public display, "Age of Bronze" set off a roiling controversy in 1876. Critics, non-plused by the intense realism of the sculpture, accused Rodin of casting from life (tantamount to a crime in a day when the work of the unaided hand was the measure of an artist).
This event alone shows how radical Rodin's revision of sculpture was. The prevailing neoclassical styles of the day sought to make idealized figures a couple safe removes from the grittiness of real life. It was Rodin's role to smash these limited concepts and turn conventional ideas of what a sculpture could be on its head.
Wayne sees Rodin's role in moving sculpture into the 20th century as fundamental as that of Cezanne in painting. Wayne calls Rodin "'The Father of Modern sculpture' because he revolutionized sculpture in the late 19th century, (taking it) in entirely new directions."
Those new directions are what made Rodin so important to the modern sculptors who followed him. With Rodin, subject matter was no longer restricted to historical or religious themes. And his wide-ranging expressiveness showed that there was no need to confine the emotional range to conventional rigged-up standards. Rodin, though in many way still rooted in 19th century culture, heroically readied sculpture for the coming century of unfettered feelings and the anxiety that such high passion brings.
In his defense of "Age of Bronze," Rodin summed up his modern approach when he said that it depicted "a mind in transformation" rather than representing some kind of ideal harmonized state where humanity was in perfect tune with nature. The idea that some ambiguous in-between state could be depicted in sculpture was a very modern notion. It made his work critical to those young artists who were moving beyond realism into uncharted expressive territory.
Nowadays, with the figure again playing a major role in sculpture, Rodin's example has become paramount. He was the first sculptor to use the fragment or the incomplete figure with mismatched parts. He didn't fuss about "correct" proportions, surface finish or anatomical accuracy. Instead, he exaggerated to the point of distortion and left signs of imperfection in his casting. Emotionally, he pulled out all the stops.
For these reasons and more, "Bodily Space" provided endless insight into how contemporary sculptors are using (or abusing) Rodin's sculptural innovations roughly a century later. The show, curated by the gallery's Holly E. Hughes, ranged widely over contemporary figure sculpture. Included were Bruce Nauman, Janine Antoni (who recently had an installation in the Albright-Knox), Robert Gober, Tony Oursler, Mauizo Cattelan, Antony Gormley and Mueck, among others.
From Mueck to the "body part" sculpture of Gober to the slice-of-life realism of the late Duane Hanson, the entire concept of what makes a sculpture seem "real" is revamped. Gober's quirky leg ("Untitled," 1990), dressed in a real pant leg, sock and shoe, juts out from a baseboard in a bizarrely comic take on the old Rodin idea that the whole body can be suggested by a fragment. Hanson's fully clothed fiberglass figures in spookily natural pose are famous for fooling gallerygoers into thinking that they are in the presence of a living being. His "Security guard," 1990, had visitors momentarily thinking that they were coming upon over-casual attendants oddly armed with flashlights.
Oursler is at least a few light-years away from bronze sculpture. His usual schtick is to project videos of talking heads on unusual objects for an eerie 3-D effect. "Don't Look At Me," 1994, projects the video on an actual armchair and a simple cloth figure. Rodin would probably not be amused.
Video also turns up in the work of Nam June Paik, one of the pioneers in the sculptural use of video. Antoni, for her part, used a traditional sculptural form -- the bust -- but radically revises the material and technique. "Lick and Lather," 1993, features 14 busts, seven in chocolate and seven in soap. And, yes, she did lick the chocolate into shape and lather the soap to sculpt her forms.
The two exhibitions dramatically demonstrate how contemporary sculptors have responded to ideas that have been floating around ever since Rodin let them loose back in the late 1880s. Nowadays, no sculptor can make a serious heroic figure, and few are willing to pump up the emotions to such colossal levels as Rodin routinely did. We're living in an ironic age with a very different psychology stirring behind it.