'Inventing America: Rockwell + Warhol:' Rockwell Museum Exhibit Celebrates Not-So Unlikely Friendship
Applying the catchphrase "Trust me; I know what I'm doing" from the '80s sitcom "Sledgehammer" applying to the "Inventing America: Rockwell + Warhol" exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through October 29, 2017 provides a nice tie-in to a site that celebrates unreal TV.
Former Warhol Museum curator/current Rockwell Museum Curator of Exhibits/Expert Exhibitionist Jesse Kowalski essentially requests that leap of faith regarding displaying the work of a leader of the Pop Art movement at a museum dedicated to an artist who is closely associated with wholesome institutions that include the "Mayberry" lifestyle, The Boy Scouts of America, and The Saturday Evening Post. Like the titular sitcom police detective, Kowalski proves that he is worthy of the requested trust.
Before delving into the surprising parallels between Rockwell and Warhol, Unreal TV would like to join the Rockwell Museum in thanking The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and the Hayseed Hill Foundation in Great Barrington, Massachusetts for being sponsors of this exhibit that extends beyond the art of Warhol to include his paint-splattered "skinny" jeans that warrant a Jonas Brothers joke.
The award for coolest item in "America" goes to an autographed publicity photo of Shirley Temple that she sent a young bed-ridden Warhol, who spent his childhood time contending with St. Vitus Dance amassing a ginormous collection of fan magazine and signed photos of celebrities. Kowalski shared that it was thought that the Temple photo was lost until it was surprisingly found among other possessions of Warhol.
The runner-up for best item is a subversive Picassoesque painting from the student days of Warhol. The personal aspect of this work that was banned from the competition for which Warhol painted it was the adviser of the grad. school thesis of your not-so-humble reviewer loving that analysis but advising sending it to a British scholarly journal (which published it) because it was too incendiary for publication in the United States.
Kowalski on Warhol and Rockwell
Kowalski shared that his interest in Pittsburgh-native Warhol (nee Warhola) dates back to the Kansas high school days of the curator. Kowalski noted that the nature of Warhol included that "he never gave any thought to the legacy of his work; he just went with the times."
Kowalski stated as well that his reasons for attending the highly non-traditional The College of That Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine included wanting to get far away from Kansas. He added that an internship at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh during his studies led to a job after he graduated.
Discussions regarding producing a Rockwell exhibit at the Warhol Museum provided a taste of things to come for Kowalski.
Other than the story of Warhol growing up poor in Pittsburgh, most of the biographical information that Kowalski relayed about Warhol demonstrated that this man who was known for purposefully looking and acting very odd lived a surprisingly Rockwellesque private life. These wholesome characteristics included living with his mother and a gaggle of cats much of his adult life. Learning that Warhol was a devout Catholic who attended Mass every Sunday and several times during the week was even more surprising.
Kowalski noted as well that the life of thrice-married (including one divorce) Manhattan-native Rockwell did not fully match his public image much more than the perception matched reality regarding Warhol. Kowalski further added that this dad of three who often painted scenes of fathers being active in the lives of their children worked every day of the year, except for taking one-half day off on Christmas.
As an aside, family guy Kowalski is a terrific father; his young son John was a delightful member of our party. A highlight of interacting with Kowalski Jr. was getting him to almost admit to that he would trade in his highly allergic older sister for a dog or a cat.
Resistance is Foolish
Kowalski stated regarding making his vision of a Warhol exhibit at the Rockwell Museum a reality that "Rockwell purists" initially opposed the idea. Telling these folks and others that "he [Warhol] built a persona that was not who he was" was the first step in getting support for the exhibit. This led to enthusiasm that Kowalski described as "by the end of it, they all loved Warhol."
Rockwell + Warhol
The expertise of Kowalski regarding the parallels between Rockwell and Warhol came through loud-and-clear during our discussion, in touring the exhibit, and in reading the exhibit catalog that Kowalski and Rockwell Museum Deputy Director/Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett co-authored. This show of knowledge began with Kowalski stating that Warhol never met Rockwell but liked his art to the extent of commenting during a 1962 exhibit of Rockwell paintings that he influenced the work of Warhol.
The catalog adds the context that Rockwell artistically made art for the common man out of high concepts and that Warhol transformed the ordinary into "high art." An awesome photo in the exhibit and the catalog shows a bemused Warhol with a cart full of Brillo pads, Campbell soup cans, and other household items on which he based some work in the aisle of a New York grocery store.
Kowalski shared as well that Rockwell and Warhol separately began their art careers in advertising; both his comments and the exhibit highlighted their different approaches to that work. Further, the catalog noted that the conservative button-down world of 1950s Madison Avenue not being a good personality match with Warhol did not prevent him from regularly winning major advertising awards.
One topic that the discussion with Kowalski, the exhibit, and the catalog all covered that perfectly illustrated (no pun intended) the contrast between Rockwell and Warhol was the portraits by each artist of a pre-Jackie O Jackie Kennedy.
The Rockwell painting (which Warhol owned and that the Warhol museum loaned the Rockwell for "Amercia") was a 1963 portrait that Rockwell painted in traditional Rockwellesque style several weeks before the JFK assassination. The Warhol portrait (which hangs next to the Rockwell painting in "America") is in the famous two-tone silkscreen style of that artist.
Kowalski noted that that subject and style reflected the art of Warhol of that era. This curator aded that Warhol painted a series of "Madonna figures," who were "women who either were dying or in grief." Other subjects included Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, but not Liza.
A cool "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" connection that Kowalski revealed was that the art instructors who taught either Warhol or Rockwell could be tied to an Italian artist from 1400.
Kowalski mentioning Warhol promoting his celebrity status in the '80s to the extent of appearing in the very special 200th episode of that Saturday night ABC anthology sitcom "The Love Boat" prompted watching that episode on YouTube. A truly awesome scene involved "Happy Days" co-stars Tom Bosley and Marion Ross (who played a very Cunninghamesque married couple) discussing the art of Warhol and the Bosley character commenting that the deceased Rockwell was the only comparable artist to Warhol.
A portion of "America" that sadly must remain unsung for the moment is "Remembering Uncle Andy," which is a collection of paintings by Warhol nephew James Warhola. In addition to the Warhol connection, this exhibit is apt because the combination of folksy style and Pop Art in the work of art make Warhola the artistic child of Rockwell and Warhol.
A highlight of the "Andy" art is a painting of a surprised Warhol opening the door of his New York factory to see his unsophisticated brother and family there for an unannounced visit. Kowalski noted that that was an actual case of art imitating a common real life event.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
It is nice to think that the public Warhol persona would have enjoyed the exhibit if only because it disproved his cynical prediction decades before the reality TV population explosion that everyone in the future will have 15 minute of fame; "America" awesomely shows that the fame of that artist and Rockwell potentially is eternal.
The same can be said regarding the subjects of the upcoming Summer 2018 exhibit at the Rockwell titled "Wyeth, Parrish, and Rockwell: Keepers of the Flame."
On the subject of being eternal, this article on the exhibit and the related written portraits of the artists could reach that state. Once again channeling the spirit of Warhol in both senses of the word, readers are encouraged to adhere to the principle of RTFM and just go see the exhibit.