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Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World

OCTOBER 24, 2016
For the rest of this week, three of my paintings will be on display in a group exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge Massachusetts.

According to the museum’s press release, the exhibit, which opened June 17th, “explores the resurgence of realist painting during the latter half of the twentieth century...  [and] features the art of prominent illustrators, painters, and sculptors whose autographic art spans more than sixty years, representing many dynamic forms of visual communication.

“Works by noted illustrators, realists, and abstractionists [are] on view, including: Marshall Arisman, Bo Bartlett, Austin Briggs, Alan E. Cober, Robert Cottingham, Robert Cunningham, Joe De Mers, Stevan Dohanos, Walton Ford, Eric Forstmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Bernie Fuchs, Sam Francis, Edwin Georgi, George Giusti, Ralph Goings, Cleve Grey, Brad Holland, George Hughes, Dan Howe, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Anita Kunz, Jacqui Morgan, Robert Motherwell, Barbara Nessim, Barnett Newman, Tim O’Brien, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, Al Parker, Bob Peak, Philip Pearlstein, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Norman Rockwell, Peter Rockwell, James Rosenquist, David Salle, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Robert Weaver, Thomas Woodruff, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth, among others.”

The theme of the exhibition is summed up in the first sentence of the museum's press release: "The essence of tradition is to invite the challenge that redefines it, and after fifty years on the periphery, realism is being reinvigorated by contemporary artists who see it as a way to address the experiences of living in our complex world."
"[B]y 1961, when Norman Rockwell painted The Connoisseur...[I’m quoting from the press release again] Abstract Expressionism had been covered in the popular press for nearly fifteen years...[and] had successfully attracted collectors and critics...This seismic shift in the art world also impacted the world of illustration, as many prominent practitioners championed more expressive, symbolic, and metaphoric approaches to their work.”

This is all quite accurate, although it makes it sound a little more cut and dried than it seemed at the time.

When I arrived in Chicago in the fall of ‘61, fresh out of high school, I was told there was no future in art except in Abstract Expressionism and if I was Amish enough to want to paint realistically I should become an illustrator.  Of course, then they told me that illustration wasn’t art, so tough luck, kid, nothing you do will ever be taken seriously.

At the time, it took some soul searching, but I quickly developed the attitude that there were three kinds of artists in this world: fine artists, commercial artists and real artists. And real artists are the ones who don’t care which of the other two kinds you called them.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the exhibition opened in mid June and I intended to write something about it at the time. But before I did, I wanted to add some comments of my own to those I was quoting from the museum's press release. I didn't have time to do it then and I only have time to summarize what I was going to write now.

In mounting the exhibition, the Rockwell museum has made many thoughtful and provocative observations about the reasons for a revival of realism. And, of course, making such observations and posing questions about the various forms that realism has taken is one of the traditional reasons for curating exhibitions of this sort.

Yet inevitably, these kinds of thoughts tend to be intellectual and retrospective. They're not the kinds of things artists were inclined to think about 50 years ago. For those of us on the ground floor, the thinking at that time had to be practical and strategic. To put it bluntly, if you wanted to make a living as a realistic painter in those days, you had to ask yourself every day how you could keep getting away with what you were doing, then find ever-new ways to keep doing it.

In my own case, I chose to make a simple assumption. I imagined a world in which the pictures people called illustration would be accepted as a form of popular art – married to a text but separate from it.  And then I had to act as if that world already existed.  It didn't, of course, and to act that way in the 1960s, say, one had to accept being thought of as somewhat delusional.

Yet with shows like the one the Rockwell museum has put together this summer, that world has come a little bit closer. My thanks to Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's Deputy Director and Chief Curator and to all the museum's staff for their vision and foresight, and for all the work they put into mounting this show.

The paintings of mine included in the Rockwell show are:

The Dog Museum, painted for Irene Gallo at Tor Books, 2005;

Souls on Ice, painted for Erwin Piplits, the Odeon Theater, Vienna, 2006;
The Metaphysician, painted for The New York Times Magazine, 1980.
All pictures © Brad Holland.