The secret, clearly, is that Rockwell’s productions, his tableaux of American innocence, are not simple at all. If they were, we would have forgotten them by now. Instead they are loaded with unconscious energy, with nervous hum and erogenous gleam. The grotesque, like some goblin field of gravity, seems to bend and warp even his most conventional subjects. Shiny noses, stringy throats, eyes too avid or too dull; a freakish quiddity in his rendering of shoes, elbows, baskets, bricks. Which to us, post-Freudians that we all inevitably are, can mean only one thing: repression! Rockwell’s preference for the company of boy models and rugged apprentices over that of, say, women is a recurring note in Solomon’s book. (“Draws Boys Not Girls” was the headline of a 1923 Boston Globe article.) He married unhappily, twice, and more happily a third time. And although his demons were not very sulphurous, not very rock-and-roll, they were demons nonetheless: shame, awkwardness, a cyclical sense of his own artistic insufficiency, and an enormous, hellacious self-imposed pressure to get everything right. If he was gay, he was never—on the evidence currently available—actively so. Solomon’s point is more that he wasn’t gay, he wasn’t anything. He hovered fraughtly, jamming his canvases with inference. Of his habit of placing a dog, person, hatbox, or similar item in the foreground of his paintings, between the viewer and the action, she writes: “It is one of the tensions in Rockwell’s art. He paints objects with the kind of fastidious realism intended to bring you closer to the touchable, handleable world. But then he paints a barricade in the foreground to keep you from touching. He cannot allow himself to touch what he wants.”
Was Rockwell a realist? A hyper-realist? A fabulist? An artistic reactionary, or a commercial wizard whose success in self-branding and media manipulation anticipated Andy Warhol? Modernism, the bomb in the museum, went off at the beginning of his career, and he was forced to find his place among the fragments. In 1913, as Rockwell was painstakingly mastering his craft with the sober draftsmen of the Art Students League, on West 57th Street in New York City, the Armory Show arrived at 25th and Lexington: Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, the dissolution of the visual plane, the vanishing floor of the universe. Rockwell absorbed these advances, even allowing himself a wistful sojourn in radical Paris, and went the other way—in the direction of construction, compression, and cramming the frame with meaning. Jackson Pollock would be his art-historical Other, the Hyde to his Jekyll. Later in life, Rockwell would say that if he were young again he’d paint that way too.
But Rockwell was also from the future, in his way. There was something cutting-edge in Rockwell’s high-polish micro-anecdotes, his insanely overdeveloped sight gags—such as 1962’s The Connoisseur, in which a well-dressed gent, his back to us, stands like a pillar of salt before the orgasmic splatter of an abstract-expressionist painting. Inside modernism’s flying-apart was a countervailing impulse toward convergence and concentration: Ezra Pound, banging on about the Chinese ideogram, had sought a poetry that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” and Henri Cartier-Bresson had made “the decisive moment”—the sudden intersection of previously unrelated energies—part of the liturgy of photography. Rockwell’s decisive moments, by contrast, were fictional. He conceived them alone (Solomon writes that “the gestation of ideas was arduous”) and then fabricated them, with extraordinary care, from photographs, props, and paraphernalia, the chin of this model and the arm of that one. It was labor-intensive, to say the least. To render correctly the girl’s black eye in 1954’s The Shiner, Rockwell visited two hospitals, spoke with The Berkshire Eagle of his need for a “ripe” injury (“Several hundred people responded,” writes Solomon, “many of them prisoners”), and finally settled on a 2-year-old who had recently fallen down the stairs.