STOCKBRIDGE — You may recognize Norman Rockwell's 1961 painting, "The Connoisseur," in which a well-dressed, balding fellow inspects a giant Jackson Pollockesque splatter painting. It has Rockwell's signature, closely observed detail and gentle wit.
It shows two world views interacting, but since the viewer has his back to you, the painting doesn't actually pass judgment on what at the time was one of the great fissures in the art world.
But you might not know that Rockwell applied his usual rigorous method to create the image. With the help of his son, Peter, he experimented with different Abstract Expressionist styles to craft a credible recreation of their work. He was so taken with the process that he even submitted some of his studies to regional painting competitions under a false name — including one that earned an honorable mention from the Berkshire Museum.
"If I were young, I would paint that way myself," Rockwell admitted.
While Rockwell and the Abstract Expressionists may seem miles apart, the painting highlights that they were always engaged with another, and that observation is the heart of "Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World," a new summer exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum that opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 30.
Through an impressively diverse range of mid-century paintings, prints, and etchings, the exhibit engages directly a core question about Rockwell and his legacy — how one of the most recognizable, popular American painters of his time was so deeply at odds with the prevailing trends in the art world.
The exhibit proposes that Rockwell's approach, with its emphasis on storytelling and realistic imagery, didn't vanish but evolved.
"Realism never really left," said Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's deputy director and chief curator. "It became new for a new age."
Rockwell, whose astonishingly long career began before the First World War, was already a bit of a traditionalist when Abstract Expressionism exploded onto the post-war art world. The new style was all about bold action, unapologetic colors, and an aggressive turn away from narrative and naturalism, always with the focus on the artist him or herself as the hero of their own creation.
The exhibition captures that spirit in a selection of works from major artists at the time. Among them is an early Jackson Pollock print, a Barnett Newman print with its top-to-bottom zips, and a bright painting by Helen Frankenthaler. There are cryptic, calligraphic squiggles from Cy Twombly, and the programmed patterns of Sol LeWitt.
By the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism's moment began to ebb. Emerging artists, especially those in the Pop movement, returned to recognizable imagery in a big way.
Artists like Robert Rauschenberg used prints of photographs in their work, and Claes Oldenburg recreated familiar objects in an unexpected materials. They were also drawing from new sources of inspiration, like comic books. Roy Lichtenstein's screenprint "Brushstrokes" (1967) features a carefully designed, highly stylized "spontaneous" brushstroke, against a background of his signature printer's dots.
Pop Art found it reached its peak in the work of Andy Warhol, who began his as a commercial illustrator and spent a career exploring the nature of repetitive images and the creation of fame and celebrity. He is represented here with print images of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.
Plunkett said there was an affinity between Warhol and Rockwell. Warhol owned two Rockwell works — a painting of Jacqueline Kennedy from the early 1960s, and a signed print from a series of images of Santa Claus.
"I think Warhol clearly had an appreciation for what Rockwell was doing in terms of being an iconmaker," she said.
The kind of push and pull between abstraction and realism was not just limited to the world of fine arts, but also in magazine illustration, where Rockwell did most of his work. There, modernist ideas allowed artists to begin to explore more personal ways of imagemaking, even as the sweeping advance of photography forced them to rethink their work. Rockwell himself briefly experimented with more modernist approaches in the 1930s when he felt creatively blocked, but gave it up when the works didn't sell. The pieces themselves were lost.
One gallery of the exhibition tracks the evolution of illustration at the time; how, by the post-war years, Rockwell's earnestness and painstaking attention to detail had become old-fashioned. While contemporaries like George Hughes still emphasized scenemaking, others like Robert M. Cunningham came to use more and more abstract elements to introduce more ideas and themes.
"(Editors) wanted their publications to feel modern," Plunkett said. "The tried-and-true narrative illustration was becoming a thing of the past."
Back in the fine art world, movements like minimalism and postmodernism brought new ideas, voices and techniques to the art. While realism continued to change as well.
Among the schools explored in this show is photorealism, with its intense effort to paint as realistically as possible. That can lead to fussy dead-ends, like Ralph Goings' photo-perfect images of diners. More interesting are Robert Cottingham's detailed studies of signs. His interest in signage goes back to his amazement as a boy at the scene in Times Square. If you squint long enough at "Oasis" (2013), what seems to be a simple depiction of a business sign on the surface becomes a sort of compressed abstract blur — a meditation on the mechanics of seeing.
The exhibition carries on with an exploration of "New Realism," in which artists like Andrew and Jaime Wyeth and Philip Pearlstein use abstract elements to create mimetic paintings. Some skirt uncomfortably close to shallowness and banality. But others take full advantage of the intensity and mystery they can create, like Alice Neel's "John and Joey Priestly" (1968), a portrait of two boys that keeps the focus on their faces, as their limbs and bodies are only suggested.
Realism is an enduring thread in the visual arts, but the exhibition subtly notes that it doesn't get the free pass it once did. All the contemporary works raise an abundance of questions that highly trained academic artists of the pre-Impressionist era could have avoided.
Bo Bartlett is a contemporary painter who mixes the scale of Abstract Expressionist canvases with a Rockwellian emphasis on detail. Two of his enormous paintings are on display — "A New Beginning" (2008) and "The Box" (2002). Both seem to glow with an unreal sort of light, and there is a mystery behind the beautiful, affluent-looking figures that populate his work. But the questions it lends itself to — "How'd he do that?" and "Why does this feel like a J. Crew ad?" — seem more appropriate for a magic show or a glossy magazine.
Still, the connection to Rockwell's approach is clear, especially in "New Beginning," which is clearly inspired by Rockwell's "Artist Facing Blank Canvas (The Deadline)" from 1938. According to Plunkett, the artist credits an early interest in a book about Rockwell's methods, with its models, props, and preparatory photos.
"It's fun to see a painter coming back to Rockwell today," Plunkett said.
IN THE GALLERIES
What: "Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World"
Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge
When: Saturday through Oct. 30
Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Admission: $18 (adults); $17 (seniors, 65+); $16 (veterans); $10 (college students with ID); $6 (children/teens 6-18); free (members and children age 5 and under)
Additional information: (413) 298-4100; nrm.org