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Translator of hope into reality

In an uncanny boon for the Guggenheim Museum, if you're cynically minded, the fortuitous arrival of the 2-year-old Norman Rockwell traveling exhibition in New York after Sept. 11 gives everybody in town a chance to contemplate through altered eyes the Rembrandt of Punkin Crick, as a critic acidly dubbed him years ago.

"Everybody" now includes large numbers of Americans who didn't live through, or weren't old enough to recall firsthand, World War II, when Rockwell painted Rosie the Riveter and Four Freedoms. These middle-aged Vietnam War-era boomers and a couple of younger generations may perceive him a little differently today.

The rap on Rockwell, even though he was the first to say he painted only fantasy, was that his art wasn't true to life, as if that were the apt measure of a popular illustrator's value: His work was not about the real world, detractors said, just a sanitized, cornball version of it.

Well, nowadays, in our flag-shrouded anxiety, the cornball sentiments in, say, Freedom From Fear, with its mom and dad tucking the kids into bed, Dad clutching a newspaper with "Horror" and "Bombings" in the headline, seem less remote and contrived than they did before Sept. 11. The picture can make you gulp despite yourself.

And among the mobs that no doubt will crowd the Guggenheim to see the show that opened Saturday, there will surely be more than a few visitors seeking Rockwell's brand of candied solace and small-town nostalgia. Call it patriotic escapism, which is not any worse than other kinds of escapism, and which caused Americans to be grateful for Rockwell throughout World War II and during most of the rest of the last century, notwithstanding the grousing of experts.

Now, the past partly repeats itself. What Rockwell painted was not what America, in its complexity, ever quite looked like. But at his best he captured what many Americans really felt and desired _ and many now feel and desire _ which is truth on a level deeper than surface appearance.

You may be interested to learn that Rockwell thought Freedom From Fear was smug. Americans had the benefit of knowing that their children went to bed safe from those bombs in the headline. Europeans didn't. Rockwell felt uneasy about that. He wasn't too happy with Freedom From Want either, the beloved Thanksgiving scene with the family at the table ready to eat the big turkey, a scene Europeans resented because it suggested American overabundance. Rockwell was sorry about that, too.

But times change, and with them, perceptions. Our Dagwood Bumstead of art, Rockwell has always been the perfect homely barometer of national self-identity. And in this newly changed environment, Freedom From Want, like Freedom From Fear, also looks a little different: just as squeaky clean but now less simple-minded and straightforward, more freighted on the eve of a Thanksgiving in the midst of a different war. Freighted up to a point, of course, Rockwell still being an artist whose transparent and unabashed sentimentality steadfastly defied the modernist credo that art had to be difficult if not actually ornery.

When the Rockwell retrospective started its tour in Atlanta two years ago, everybody was talking about his new embrace by art professionals, or some of them anyway, including some fashionable young figurative artists (John Currin, Alexis Rockman and others). This prompted the inevitable counteroffensive by dissenting critics. Rockwell was no Picasso, they said, as if anybody ever thought so.

Thus a tedious battle was re-enacted. A benefit of Laura Claridge's excellent and thorough new biography, Norman Rockwell: A Life, is to remind us that the debate about whether Rockwell was a good artist is as shopworn as his art. Anybody who saw the Rockwell retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum 30 years ago might recall these same arguments being waged back then, when they were already 50 years old and no less beside the point _ the point being that Rockwell was good at what he did, which was to use old-fashioned charm and self-effacing dignity to help ease a rapidly changing nation's difficult passage into the future.

He was a commercial artist, one whose Boy Scout calendars, magazine covers and advertisements spoke to the American people in a democratic, all-inclusive vein, like a neighbor talking eyeball-to-eyeball with another neighbor over the picket fence. Not coincidentally, that strategy also helped to sell the products of the patrons who paid him, and there was nothing wrong with that.

The involvement of the Guggenheim has changed the terms of the argument somewhat. The Guggenheim was founded to consecrate just the kind of European abstract art to which Rockwell was held up by readers of the Saturday Evening Post as the all-American antidote.

That was the Guggenheim when Rockwell was alive, at any rate. Today, in a museum that gives us a Giorgio Armani retrospective, the Rockwell exhibition looks less out of place. Even so, the work still takes getting used to there, if only because of the institution's vestigial legacy.

The essence of the argument for abstraction, which the Guggenheim upheld, was that line, color, texture and brushwork, rather than storytelling, were what people should focus on first in modern art. Rockwell's paintings, notwithstanding their astounding microscopic verisimilitude, were never about formal virtues above all else. They were about homey anecdotes intricately described: a new television antenna being installed on the gabled roof of an old Victorian house with a church steeple in the distance _ old religion giving way to new _ or the GI home for Thanksgiving peeling potatoes with his mom in the kitchen.

We were meant to decipher these folksy messages, and then maybe other equally benign messages, Rockwell sometimes layering his pictures with multiple meanings, dropping highfalutin' clues here and there for audiences with more art-historical knowledge. That layering was his little way of staking a claim to high-art bona fides.

Rockwell moved to Paris once to become a modern artist, before deciding after a few months that it wasn't for him. Like any insecure, sensitive person, he fretted, despite his success and popularity, that serious people didn't take him seriously enough. He complained to his son Peter after an admirer said, "I don't know anything about art, but I sure like your stuff." He would prefer, he said, "If they'd tell me, I know lots about art and I really love your work." But of course they never did.

Hence, layered messages in works like Art Critic, which gently parodies old masters, and in Triple Self-Portrait, a clever picture, with its sly Picasso and Rembrandt imitations and funny autobiographical metaphors _ all of which were Rockwell's wily means of signaling cognoscenti, who still mostly ignored him.

Sympathetic scholars now arguing on his behalf partly point to these more or less buried messages, but that argument seems like special pleading. The allusions are worth noting, simply because they're there; but Rockwell was not a better or unusual artist because he knew about Picasso and Jackson Pollock, nor was he a more intriguing painter because his personal life happened not to be as tranquil and boring as he made it out to be.

The point is that formal properties like texture and brushwork necessarily took a back seat to anecdote in his paintings, which were made to be converted into magazine illustrations. The look of these images in reproduction was what counted, and Rockwell was brilliant (you see this in the show) at calculating the variables of conversion from canvas to magazine. The painted canvas itself was a step toward a finished product, not the finished product, and sometimes his patrons just threw these canvases away after the illustrations were made.

So the Guggenheim show is implicitly asking us to make a leap: to see Rockwell as a fine painter _ which he was in some ways but wasn't in others. His surfaces are flat and monotonous. He also sometimes overloaded his images with fussy, cute details, like a nervous parent piling ornaments on a Christmas tree. The sugar level can induce diabetic coma.

Then in later years, when Rockwell, partly out of frustration with his own apolitical style, produced "serious" works like Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi) and The Problem We All Live With, of Ruby Bridges, a young black girl, on her way to her newly integrated school in New Orleans, he replaced the sugar with cod liver oil. These right-minded pictures, reproduced in countless grade-school textbooks, are earnest and preachy, which Rockwell at his best never was.

That said, his imagination and craft are obvious. Rosie the Riveter, with her big, gorgeous arms, her halo set against a waving American flag, her riveting gun laid provocatively across her lap, her baby face and her practical penny loafers, one in front of the other resting daintily on a ripped-up copy of Mein Kampf, is a virtuoso example of catchy figurative invention and savvy national boosterism.

The allusion to Michelangelo's Isaiah in the pose, Claridge reminds us in her biography, was immediately caught by many of those supposedly middlebrow Saturday Evening Post readers, who wrote in to point it out. The allusion was not pretension on Rockwell's part, therefore, just a way to augment the heroism wittily.

Freedom From Want, a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover, may have seemed a sweet Thanksgiving vignette to many Americans, but Norman Rockwell himself wasn't comfortable with the message of overabundance it carried for some people.

Parents in post-Sept. 11 America can identify with this cover, Freedom From Fear (1943). During World War II, parents tuck their children into their safe beds, carrying on their protective role in the dangerous world described by the newspaper's headlines.

The Art Critic carries a layered message, on one level gently parodying the old masters.

A clever picture that slyly nudges the ribs of the art savvy, Triple Self-Portrait carries autobiographical references to Rockwell.

In Rosie the Riveter, Rockwell combines patriotic symbolism with flamboyant national boosterism.