The odd couple of art, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell, come together in a major exhibition in Stockbridge
STOCKBRIDGE — Illustrator James Warhola got his start somewhat following in the footsteps of his Uncle Andy — who dropped the 'a' in their Slovakian family name when he moved to New York and became one of the most important artists of the century. But while his uncle was far out on the cutting edge — and encouraged him to consider a career in film or photography because he thought traditional illustration was over — they shared an unlikely influence.
"I'm more like Norman Rockwell than Andy Warhol," he admitted in an interview from his studio this week, praising the older painter's careful technique, commitment to storytelling, and sense of humor.
A new show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, opening Saturday, pairs the work of these two iconic American artists, who have way more in common than you might think.
"Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol" examines each artist's roots deep in the world of commercial illustration and their journey to becoming household names. It looks at the themes they have in common, the ways they created a persona that matched their professional strategies, and their conflicts between popular art and critical fashion.
At the heart of the exhibit are the shared themes that both artists covered — celebrities, politicians and iconic pieces of commercial ephemera.
"When you start to look for it, it is surprising," said Norman Rockwell Museum chief curator Stephanie Plunkett, who co-organized the show with curator of exhibitions Jesse Kowalski. "These are two artists, each in their own realms, reacting to what's happening in their own way."
Each artist, as the show's title suggests, was creating and commenting on the images that defined their time. It begins with an instantly recognizable Rockwell image — "Freedom from Want" (1942), showing a giant turkey being presented to the Thanksgiving table.
"Here we have the family around the table, a home-cooked meal, but of course, this is a completely staged picture," Plunkett said. "It is a constructed reality, even though it is based on a classic American Thanksgiving. Or what we now think of as a classic American Thanksgiving because of Rockwell."
This kind of roundabout thinking about the power of imagery comes into focus when paired with an instantly recognizable Warhol image — "Campbell's Soup Can" (1969), one of his series of images of everyday consumer items, given a strange new meaning by being enlarged and plastered on a gallery wall
"He grew up with a lot these things that he ended up painting," Kowalski said. "These were images everybody recognized — Campbell's soup, Marilyn Monroe. For him it all made sense because he had been a top ad man and knew what people wanted, and what sold, and used that knowledge to create images that had this great impact."
The show has been in the works for almost five years. It is a collaboration between two experts on the respective artists. Plunkett has been with the Rockwell Museum for over two decades and Kowalski arrived two years ago after spending nearly the same time at the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist's hometown of Pittsburgh.
By the 1960s, Rockwell was already an elder statesman in American art, even though his particular narrative style of illustration was rapidly falling out of favor as publishers turned to more photographic and graphic work.
"Rockwell had tremendous influence — because was working for mass market publications — on the way America thought about itself," Plunkett said. "What are our aspirations? who are we as a nation? who are our best selves?"
At first glance, it would seem Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement were upending that vision. But a closer look shows that like Rockwell, Warhol had deep roots in illustration and the crafting of iconic images. A working class kid, he had moved to New York and made a name illustrating ads through the 1950s.
Like Rockwell, he struggled to earn the respect and acceptance of the fine art world — at the time dominated by Abstract Expressionism with its massive, swaggering sense of scale. His career took off in the early 1960s with his soup can series, bringing back to the arts a sense of imagery, humor and irony that had been neglected. A big part of that was about reinterpreting iconic images — some of which were crafted by Rockwell a generation earlier.
But from the same commitment to illustration, the two artists went in radically different directions. Included are several campaign images that Rockwell painted in his familiar, meticulous fashion — of John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, of Richard Nixon, and Robert F. Kennedy. On the other side are some of Warhol's silk-screened images based on news footage — as well as his ghoulish depiction of Nixon, made for the McGovern campaign in 1972.
Part of the difference is a sense of technology and approach. For all his supposed traditionalism, Rockwell was devoted to a meticulous process involving posing, models, photos, sketches, and a kind of opaque projector to help compose his images. All in the service of staying in his lane.
"He had a strong sense of tradition," Plunkett said. "He saw himself as part of a long tradition of American illustration going back to the Civil War. He saw that as his calling and I don't think he could see himself doing anything else. The structure of assignments was good for him and the reaction of the audience was important to him."
Warhol, on the other hand, was an eager explorer of media and approaches. He moved away from painting and illustration for long explorations of film-making, magazine publishing, rock group management. But what they have in common is an acute awareness of their public persona and a desire to shape how they were seen.
The exhibit explores the ways they did that. For Warhol — a shy, sickly kid who was self-conscious about his splotchy skin and balding head — that came as a transformation into the distant, uber-cool New York artiste. On display are one of his famous wigs, along with his leather boots and jacket.
But what may be lost is that Rockwell was doing much the same thing, but in the opposite direction. He played up his identity as a wholesome, tweedy, eccentric, down-home painter, despite being, as his son Peter once described him, "a closet intellectual" who traveled the world and kept up on trends in modern art.
Included with the show are some works by James Warhola, including his book covers and some images commissioned for MAD magazine. Warhola said he knew "Uncle Andy" growing up as a prolific, hard-working artist who encouraged his work and showed their family that it was possible to make a living in the arts. This show makes perfect sense to him.
"It might strike some as a bit of an odd duet, but in the world of 20th century culture these are two heavyweights of image-making," he said. "[My uncle] would have been thrilled."
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