Norman Rockwell Museum rethinks the way it displays artist's work

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STOCKBRIDGE — It should come as no surprise that, as the Norman Rockwell Museum's new guy on campus, curator of exhibitions Jesse Kowalski wants museum visitors to experience Rockwell's work as they've never experienced it before.

So, Kowalski's taken a healthy sampling of Rockwell's most popular works, tossed in some rarely seen paintings and objects Rockwell used to create his art and reinstalled them in four reconceived galleries in a show Kowalski calls "Norman Rockwell — Heroes, Humor and Growing Up."

The idea, Kowalski said during a tour of the reimagined galleries, is to gather Rockwell's work around certain themes and present his art in a way, Kowalski says, "that should strike a chord with visitors."

It is no accident that a gallery off to the left of the central gallery is devoted to Rockwell's process. While this one space is devoted to a behind-the-scenes look at how Rockwell approached his work, the notion of process recurs throughout the other three galleries where sketches and charcoal drawings in display cases and hanging on the gallery walls reveal how Rockwell translated preliminary thinking into finished, fully composed art.

Kowalski, 41, comes to Stockbridge after spending more than 10 of his 18 years at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh as its director of exhibitions.

A lifelong fan of Rockwell, Kowalski organized the Rockwell Museum's "Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross" (November 2012-February 2013).

While working on that show he met the Rockwell's chief curator. Stephanie Plunkett. They kept in touch and, in fact, began talking about putting together a Norman Rockwell/Andy Warhol show for 2017. When this job opened up, Plunkett approached Kowalski. He readily accepted.

"I was given free reign to redesign the galleries," said Kowalski, who came to the Rockwell in March and lives in Lenox with his wife, who was registrar at the Warhol museum, and their two children — a boy, 7, and a girl, 9.

Kowalski took his time approaching what he characterizes as the museum's "outstanding" collection.

"I really wanted to highlight the resources here," he said, sitting down at a table in the museum's soon-to-be-filled-by-the lunchtime-crowd cafe.

He met with museum staffers and the sales staff in the museum's shop.

The discussions centered around what visitors expected when they came to the museum. He began focusing on themes that would "strike a chord with visitors," Kowalski said.

"So many great themes emerged. It wasn't difficult at all to pull things together."

For this first go-round, the galleries are organized around the themes of coming of age, heroes and humor.

Beginning with "No Swimming" (1921) and ending with "New Kids in the Neighborhood" (1967), "Coming of Age" — in the gallery to the right of the center gallery — arranges Rockwell's work in chronological order determined by the subjects' age.

"Heroes," in the center gallery, hosts some of Rockwell's most iconic work — "The Runaway," "Portrait of John F. kennedy," "Lincoln for the Defense," "The Peace Corps," and, among other memorable civil rights era paintings, the chilling "Murder in Mississippi."

Walk through a rotunda — behind "Heroes" — that displays "The Four Freedoms," several of Rockwell's Boy Scouts paintings and the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Rockwell received from President Gerald Ford in January 1977 — and you come to the gallery dealing with Rockwell's humor. The work here ranges from paintings Rockwell did during the Depression on up to the 1950s and '60s. "Humor" includes Rockwell's familiar "Self-Portrait," "Deadline (Artist Facing Blank Canvas)," "Triple Self-Portrait," "Murder Mystery" and a sublime unpublished 1963 work, "The Marriage Counselor."

"Out of 83 works Rockwell created during the Depression, only two," Kowalski said, "actually dealt with (that period). He was trying to lighten the mood of the country."

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Indeed, that sentiment is an underlying theme of Kowalski's installation. "Overall," Kowalski said, "I think what you see here is a reflection of what Rockwell once said was his desire to paint life as he would like it to be."

The installation also includes a full set of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post tearsheets and an installation of his original Stockbridge studio.

In a way, Kowalski and Rockwell seem to have been destined for one another. Kowalski grew up in all-American Rockwell territory — a small town in Kansas. "I had a Rockwell childhood," Kowalski said.

He was a science wiz in high school and was set on a career as a marine biologist. To that end, he went to a small college in Bar Harbor, Me. But it became clear all too quickly, Kowalski said, that he and marine biology were not a match. However, Kowalski did take an art class or two.

"The art teacher and I hit it off," Kowalski said. "She took me under her wing and became my inspiration."

Long term, Kowalski wants to take Rockwell overseas where his art is not as well known as that of some other American artists.

More immediately, Kowalski is putting together the next thematic installation, which will open in mid-October, one day after this installation comes down. That show — in addition to the process gallery — will be organized around the themes Christmas, family, and children.

The reconception of the Rockwell galleries seems to have done what Kowalski hoped it would do — strike a chord with visitors.

"People really seem to be affected by what they see here," Kowalski said. Only days before this interview, he had received a letter from a student saying how much easier this installation has made it for him to grasp Rockwell. And that, Kowalski says, is the most rewarding part of his job. And why shouldn't people be affected by Rockwell's images, Kowalskio asks rhetoricvslly.

"(His) paintings are about things people have experienced," Kowalski says; "remembering with nostalgia swimming where you're not supposed to swim; first love.

"His work is very accessible, relatable; pop art before there was pop art."

ON EXHIBIT

What: "Norman Rockwell — Heroes, Humor and Growing Up"

Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge

When: Through Oct. 18

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Admission: $18; seniors (65+) — $17; veterans — $16; college students with ID — $10; children (ages 6-18) — $6; members and children age 5 and under — free

Additional information: nrm.org; (413) 298-4100


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