Disdain for Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is obligatory and safe. It puts at risk nothing that public culture has not already discarded: regard for the simple decencies and small pleasures of ordinary people, unembarrassed patriotism, piety — civic no less than religious — and shared trust in the valued status of family life. With generosity toward the commonplace, Rockwell's renowned covers for the Saturday Evening Post affirmed what modernism rejected. For that, he is yet to be forgiven.
A tiny gem of an exhibit, "Norman Rockwell in Black and White," offers just enough to make bien pensant bias against this American giant seem shallow and self-regarding. Eight rarely seen preparatory drawings offer valuable insight into the artist's fastidious creative process and formal sophistication. Original large-scale studies, in pencil and charcoal, for "War News" (1944), "Murder Mystery" (1947), "Art Critic" (1955), "Just Married" (1957), "Before the Shot" (1958), and "Family Tree" (1959), plus two others (for non-magazine commissions), are on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
The direct appeal of Rockwell's imagery is undeniable. But its larger, intrinsic value as a work of art — evident under more dispassionate scrutiny — is readily grasped in delicately nuanced black-and-white. Without the distractions of color, the artistry of his designs, the sureness of his rendering, and compositional logic hold their own against the lure of storytelling.
The final covers next to initial drawings emphasize the way printed color masks the tonal values and solid conceptual construction that undergirds Rockwell's romantic realism. In each drawing, lighting is controlled to allow the masses full possession of the space. Pictorial details — the angle of a counter, the direction of a leg or placement of a knife — serve compositional as well as narrative needs. Every illustration is a tightly knit performance, its rigor disguised by good-hearted recital.
Trained in the classical manner, Rockwell wove traditional themes and forms through the 324 covers he created for the Saturday Evening Post, and into other projects as well. "Yankee Doodle" (1937) is a marvelous, 6-foot-long pencil study for an oil painting commissioned for the reconstruction of the historic Nassau Tavern in Princeton, N.J., site of a Revolutionary battle. It illustrates the lyrics to "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a nonsense lyric written in 1755 by a British army physician to mock the disheveled Colonials who served with the British during the French and Indian War.
Rockwell's comic genius turns a classical frieze into a rambunctious send-up of the British underestimation of Colonial soldiers (who made the rhyme their battle song). Note the exquisite modeling of the Yankee's head in profile — that jaw, neck, and ear! — and his expressive hands. Their rippling vitality is a testament to Rockwell's mastery of George Bridgman's celebrated anatomy classes at the Art Students League. And, oh, that pigtail flying in the wind — both a design element and a comedic gesture of defiance. Rockwell's absurdly triumphal Yankee on his pony reads easily as an inverted reference to Sienese images of Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey.
Biblical themes were commonplace in classical painting, and Rockwell made sophisticated surrogates for them when it suited. Another such is "The Boy Who Put the World on Wheels" (1953), a study for one of six paintings commissioned by the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford's agility with clock repair was legendary. As a boy, he set up shop in his bedroom and took in neighbors' broken timepieces. Rockwell depicts him as a preteen displaying a toy-sized mechanical wind-up Model T with a spring presumably lifted from one of the pocket watches at hand. An elderly blacksmith, sitting on Mr. Ford's bed, looks on in wonderment. The pair recall myriad historic paintings of the boy Jesus holding the attention of his elders in the temple.
Committed to depicting individuals over types, Rockwell hired models for every mise-en-scène. "Yankee Doodle" required research into Colonial-era military dress, and the artist ordered accurate costumes made for his cast of characters. Like a stage director, he posed his subjects for a photographer to shoot. He also built sets and hired locals in situations where the camera was insufficient. No effort was too great in achieving fidelity to the visual facts on which his storytelling was built, or in refining the formal subtleties that granted his illustrations the dignity of art.
Rockwell worked and reworked each motif as if in obedience to Jacques Maritain's injunction that "art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made." Almost every drawing here shows pinholes where photos or sketches were attached for reference, or the marks of paper cut out and replaced to permit altering the position of forms. The amount of preparation Rockwell invested in perfecting ephemeral magazine images — some of them discarded before publication — is stunning.
In the vestibule is an accompanying video montage that weaves scenes from Rockwell's life together with the full array of themes he treated: the innocent devilment of boys, World War II, modern art, the novelty of TV antennas, the family doctor, space exploration, and so much more. His depictions of the civil rights era and integration were particularly sensitive, and remain documents of the age.
There is much to cherish in Rockwell and, if we are honest, much to mourn. His work chronicled an era that, for all its tragic flaws, championed qualities our culture will be lucky to sustain.
Until June 27 (350 Park Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, 212-583-3124).