America, America

It's a very select group, the roster of American artists who rate an entire museum. Frederic Remington, Andrew Wyeth, Andy Warhol, a couple of Western regionalists ... and Norman Rockwell, the Brueghel of the 20th-century bourgeoisie, the Holbein of Jell-O ads and magazine covers. By common assent, the most American artist of all, the man whose 68-year career was dedicated to bringing to art that quintessentially American credo: give the customer what he wants.

Until last week, anyone who wanted to view the world's largest collection of Rockwell's original oils had to visit Stockbridge, Mass., where a small museum had grown up in an old house around the corner from where Rockwell lived and worked from 1953 until his death in 1978. Now, you still have to go to Stockbridge, but you can view a permanent collection of around 60 paintings, plus revolving exhibitions, in a beautiful new museum a few miles outside of town designed by Robert A. M. Stern. In a touch that would have amused the artist, it will cost $8 to get inside to view his movieposter bust of Ann-Margret-$l more than the suggested charge to see Vermeer's "Woman With Jug" and the rest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The new museum's setting, a 36-acre estate on a bluff overlooking the Housatonic River, is intensely, but irrelevantly, scenic. As obsessive as Rockwell could be about flowers on wallpaper, he was indifferent to landscape; a river was just an excuse to paint a small boy fishing. The two runnersup in the museum's small design competition designed buildings vaguely inspired by 19th-century New England barns, but this reflects a confusion of iconographies; Rockwell's subject was people, and he rarely painted an animal larger than a fox terrier. Stern's design evokes a New England town hall, with slate gables, clapboard siding and fieldstone from real New England fields. Some of the stone was thriftily handdug by the museum's president, Lila W. Berle. It is an architecture of enforced simplicity, which everyone agrees captures Rockwell's spirit perfectly. His studio, transported whole to the site, has the usual clutter of artist's tools, some commonplace souvenirs and an ordinary green sofa, adding up to the electrifying sense of moment you might feel viewing, say, Dr. Jonas Salk's waiting room. The museum "doesn't have a monumental feel to it," Rockwell's artist son, Tom, said approvingly when the design was unveiled earlier this year. "I think my father would have liked it, but I don't think we would have gotten very far before he would have turned to me and whispered ... do you think enough people will come? Isn't this awfully expensive?"

The centerpiece of Stern's design is an octagonal gallery, beautifully proportioned and lit by a glass cupola high overhead. It houses just the large canvases that make up Rockwell's famous "Four Freedoms" series, illustrating American war aims as expressed by Franklin Roosevelt. The pictures ran in the Saturday Evening Post in early 1943, after which the originals toured the country and were credited with selling more than $130 million in war bonds. Probably the best known is "Freedom From Want," with its cheerful family just a slice away from starting Thanksgiving dinner. The effect on a museum visitor is dramatic; he passes through the bannerdecked entrance hall to a rectangular gallery, beyond which is the glowing hub of the central sanctum, where he comes face to face with the most magnificently rendered roast turkey in the history of painting.

Even Rockwell recognized that his banality had gotten the better of him here. "The Europeans sort of resented it," he wrote later, "because it wasn't freedom from want, it was overabundance." But, to take a picture Rockwell thought highly of, the pious little medley in "Freedom of Worship" seems in retrospect a pitifully weak response to fanaticism. He painted the figures facing in the same direction, which in Rockwell's cunning symbolism signified to the awake viewer: look, Mom, we all worship the same God. But that's the easy kind of tolerance. The problem is ensuring freedom for people who don't all worship the same God. Rockwell illustrated "Freedom From Fear" with a couple tucking their children into bed; the father's newspaper reports an air raid in far-off Europe. The ironic commentary on this hangs in the next gallery, in the 1957 picture "After the Prom." This shows a typically gawky teenage boy and a characteristically nubile teenage girl with a predictably friendly soda jerk. Next to the framed painting is the actual Saturday Evening Post cover on which it appeared, billing a story inside the magazine: HOW WILL AMERICA BEHAVE IF H-BOMBS FALL?

To give it its due, the picture was a masterpiece in its own terms. Rockwell had tremendous gifts for draftsmanship, composition and visual storytelling. The problem with his work isn't that his situations were dated-even when he painted them 40 years ago, they depicted a society that was at best a memory for most Americans. His greatest failing, which was also his proudest achievement, was that he couldn't stop selling. At its worst, this informed his art with the spineless conviction that the customer is always right. As he explained once about the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s and '30s: ". . . every illustration with a black person showed a servant ... That was editorial policy because editorial policy decreed no controversy." But even when what he had to sell was worthwhile-war bonds, or racial tolerance-he was bound by the need to get his message across in the attention span of a commuter scanning the newsstand as his train pulls into the station. Every inch of a Rockwell is out there selling: when he shows a group of black and white kids confronting each other (curiously, not angrily), he can't resist the opposing symmetry of a white cat and a black dog: look, Dad, we're all the same under the skin.

Well, it's still true, and it can't hurt to be reminded of it. Laurie Moffat, the museum's enthusiastic director, considers Rockwell an excellent introduction to the pleasures of art for an audience that may never have thought of a museum as a tourist destination. To make them feel at home, the museum, with only 6,200 square feet of gallery space, devotes 1,200 square feet to its souvenir shop. And for those who might not recall the old Saturday Evening Post, it bears a reassuring national brand name, like a golf tournament: it is, formally, The Steven Spielberg/Time Warner Building. But for everyone else, this splendid museum with its terrific collection serves mainly as a reminder of how clever, gifted and generous Rockwell was as a painter-and how far those qualities are from greatness.

America, America | News