Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Class Tomorrow: Greenberg and Rockwell, Together Again!

I’ve been flummoxed by a failure to find my copy of Thomas Buechner’s Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, an elephantine coffee table book I’d meant to put on reserve for my Postwar American Visual Culture course. In the meantime, I’m going to use this space as a means to get a few images in front of the class in advance of Thursday’s session, which will explore terms of argument and judgment between Clement Greenberg’s classic essays, “Toward a Newer Laocoon” and “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (both 1940, so neither postwar, but together they set the terms of thinking about artistic mediums for a generation, not to mention the structure of the postwar American art school) and the artistic bugaboo himself, Norman Rockwell–who, without fail, merits exasperated mention in seemingly every significant piece of writing about art and culture in the mid 20th century. In a few weeks, we’ll read Dwight MacDonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” (1961) which provides, among other things, an updating of Greenberg’s assessments of 1940.

Last week, many of the students (a mix of illustrator-designers and a painter or two) objected strenuously to what they saw as Greenberg’s prescriptions. Others weren't so sure. So we’re teeing the ball up for tomorrow.

As a given, say we’re to consider the periodical illustrators as a group, and Rockwell as a representative (though in many ways he shouldn’t be seen as such–his career was dominated by cover work, unlike his contemporaries, most of whom toiled on fiction spreads inside the mags, without the opportunity–or pressure–to sell the printed product). How to select a set of Rockwellian hallmark postwar works? I’d be curious to hear from Joyce Schiller, Stephanie Plunkett and Laurie Norton Moffat on this question. In the meantime, I brought the question up with Jeff Pike the other day, and our lists were very similiar. The group I’m presenting here reflects that discussion.

They are all Saturday Evening Post cover paintings: New Television Antenna (November 5, 1949), Shuffleton’s Barbershop (April 29, 1950), Saying Grace (November 24, 1951), The Connoisseur (January 13, 1962). Pike also suggested the cover of two women having cleaned a theater, reading Playbill, brooms in hand–an indicator of Rockwell’s class consciousness–but I had neither a scan, nor time to make one.

Discussion questions:

Do you think these pictures are examples of kitsch? Why?

Greenberg argues that images like these are examples of “ersatz culture, pictures offered up to those who [are] insensible to the values of genuine culture.” True? False? What’s the difference between genuine culture and other culture? If you have answer to that question, how would you apply it to the stuff referred to as “underground” music versus what you hear on mainstream radio?

How does the the discussion of media use in the “Laocoon” essay apply here?

Can you conceive of a contemporary Norman Rockwell in any medium? Can you identify one?

What values do you see represented in these images–both in terms of what they show, and how they are made?

What do you want to know about these images and the SEP issues in which they appeared that you do not? Why would it help, if you did?

Class, see you tomorrow.

Comments welcome. Both home and abroad....

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cars and Trucks

The semester is under way, with force. I'm enjoying the material I'm teaching a great deal. Much to report on each front, though I always think I'll post more than I actually do. We're having a big time in Postwar American Visual Culture, which I hope to discuss in the next several days for the benefit of next week's session, on Thursday.

But in the meantime, I'm enjoying the (quite deceptively) straightforward problem of illustrated nonfiction. I said I'd put up a few examples from the bibilography, and tonight I'm adding another from the Informational category. Above and below, Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks, a Golden Book from 1951 that I picked up at a used book store. Not in great condition.

Here's what I love about this book (one of 300 or so that Scarry illustrated, most of which he also wrote): the directness with which he engages his problem, and the secondary stories he fits in around the vehicles themselves.

Specifically, this representation of a bus with workers and embarking passengers. How simple is that, right? A picture of a bus–big deal. But the picture has eighteen distinct characters in it, including a family outside the bus: befeathered mom in sporty yellow coat, green-fedoraed dad, and two boys with mid-century goofy getups, including woolen beanie hats and green cardigans.

There's a time capsule quality to these illustrations. Despite the fact that the flattening of form, simplification of the figure and general graphic selectivity point to a modern sensibility, the content feels ancient in spots. Costume, for sure. Gender stuff, of course, and the invisibility of non-whites. The material culture captured by the pictures is really striking, at least to me, in part because I recall some of it. The knobby–crenellated?–tires you see on trucks from that era. (Which I remember from the Oberlin Dairy milk truck that showed up in the still-dark morning, bearing glass bottles in wire baskets, as late as the 1960s.) Not to mention the coal truck! When I painted houses between college terms, circa 1981 and 82, I worked in and on houses with coal chutes. These chutes had been obsolete for decades by then. At the time they felt like something out of the 19th century. Although I remember fresh milk on the porch, I never lived in a house heated by coal.

Richard Scarry, who died in the mid-1990s, sold something like 300 million books, many of them Golden Books like this one. Who could begrude him his success? He makes pictures like this! How about that kid up in the left hand corner, playing fireman (accompanied–arf!–by his dog) just across the fold from the fire chief, whose "car speeds along."

Bibliographical data: Cars and Trucks. A Little Golden Book, Illustrated by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, New York. 1951. Golden Books were jointly produced by Simon & Shuster, New York, and Western Publishing Company, Inc., Racine, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

ICON 6 Headshot

I will be speaking at the Illustration Conference in Pasadena this summer. Delighted to be doing so. Those participating in the program have been asked to submit photos and art samples. For fun I decided to draw my headshot. Two realizations, both in the aging category: a) Surprise! I have seriously grayed temples, and b) it really is time to suck it up and get bifocals.

Red Rose Calendar, 1902

I promised to send a visual reference to a student in my senior studio and did so, but heard back that the attachement failed. It's actually easier to post the images here, and more people benefit.

So: Julie, a key drawing in black with supporting coloration has taken many forms over the last 100 years or so, but the examples you showed in your sketchbook reminded me in particular of a collaborative project between Jessie Wilcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green from 1902: a self-published calendar that attracted attention and was republished as The Book of the Child in 1903. Tender drawing, atmospheric color, persisting art nouveau linear architecture, a dash of Japonisme.

These reproductions appear in Alice Carter's wonderful book, The Red Rose Girls (Abrams, 2002) concerning the interlocked careers and relationships of Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. All of these examples are by Smith. I don't have handy scans of the E.S.G. images, which if anything I prefer. Charming stuff.

A fascinating story, to speak in understatement.