Norman Rockwell Exhibit Hearkens Back to More Innocent Times

His was a world miles away from America at the turn of the 21st century, a world where nuclear families ate dinner together, where soldiers were revered and young lovers stole kisses on porch swings.

Critics, especially after the 1960s, scoffed at what they called Norman Rockwell's saccharine version of America. He's no artist, they said with contempt. He's merely an illustrator.

Rockwell was unapologetic. "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly," he said. "I paint life as I would like it to be."

And he painted life as most Americans 50 years and one day of terror later also would like it to be — at least if attendance at and interest in a show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum here in New York is any indication. The show is subtitled "Pictures for the American People."

"I think it's no accident that this exhibit is going on now, after the 11th," said Warren Leopold, 48, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who toured the show this weekend. "It appeals to a patriotic urge in the country."

"There's been a resurgence of interest in Rockwell," said one of the Guggenheim exhibit's curators, Vivien Greene. "People are looking for comfort. People want images of patriotism they can identify with."

Still, the black turtleneck crowd is not ready to cede a place at one of the art world's most cherished venues to a man who did magazine covers and focused on small-town, Middle America. Rockwell's work, they scoff, is merely a series of simplistic, feel-good drawings and shouldn't be classified as art.

"Seeing Rockwell is depressing — it is very dead, very mechanical," said art critic Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice, a New York weekly newspaper. "Everyone has a soft spot for Norman Rockwell, but you are not in the presence of artistic thought."

Saltz admits he isn't above being drawn in by Rockwell, but wants people to recognize him for what he was and not elevate him to an undeserved status.

"He is a great illustrator — top-notch," Saltz said. "He can turn me into a quivering ball of mush. I'm not a high-class, snobby guy. I love bad stuff. I have a Norman Rockwell T-shirt. But he's a worse artist than people are giving him credit for."

Visitors to the museum dare to disagree.

"He has to be an artist — he has fantastic ability," said Gerry Coughlan, 37, an artist from Ireland who lives in New York. "He's a brilliant storyteller."

"I think it is art," said Cyril Stewart, 50, from Nashville, Tenn. "Art is something that keeps giving back to you. With these [paintings], the more you look the more you see."

In a country still healing from the devastating terrorist attacks, Rockwell's work seems to fulfill the need for an escape to happier times. And certain illustrations, like those he did during World War II, have taken on new meaning in light of the disaster.

"Post 9/11, suddenly images that seemed very much embedded in the past and hearkened to a time when things seemed simpler have become absolutely relevant," said Greene. "We can translate them into very present terms. The exhibition does offer comfort."

Carol Morgan, associate publicity director of Harry N. Abrams, the illustrated book publisher that distributed the Rockwell exhibit catalogue, believes the artist's naysayers haven't been fair in their assessment.

"The critics are focusing on nostalgic subject matter they consider saccharin," she said. "But if you look at him objectively, Rockwell holds up."

Both Greene and Saltz point out that Rockwell himself was conflicted about his place in the art world. But Greene thinks that ultimately, he proved himself worthy.

"Some people would argue that he's not a brilliant artist," Greene said. "But he's certainly a very accomplished painter. I do think he's a real artist — and also an illustrator. I don't think you can separate those two things."

"He is so important and iconic to our culture," she added. "Rockwell is quintessentially American."