If one prepared themselves mentally for a classic Norman Rockwell exhibition, psyched themselves up by re-reading Dave Hickey's twisty, impassioned defense of Mr. Saturday Evening Post, and came set to wallow in some chicken-soup-for-the-soul illustration, they would still have to concede that Norman Rockwell and the Art of Medicine is an unimpressive and unsightly exhibition.
In the mid-20th century, the Upjohn Company (now the Pfizer Corporation, who sponsored this exhibition) shifted their focus from herbal to biochemical medicines. To ease the country through this pharmaceutical transition, they commissioned Rockwell to create mind-numbing, mawkish paintings about nice boys and girls, and kindly old docs.
Created in the same era that spawned W. Eugene Smith's classic photo-essay The Country Doctor and William Carlos Williams' marvelous Doctor Stories, Rockwell's flatfooted canvases always depict doctors as patient, bespectacled surrogate grandfathers, and boys as clean, impish tykes with kerchiefs sticking from their back pockets. The old gents humor little girls by taking the pulse of their dollies, and tend patiently to the boys' puppy dogs. When alone, Norm's boys measure themselves against the wall and make muscles in front of bedroom mirrors. In all seven of the canvases on display at the Portland Art Museum, the compositional focus falls two-thirds to the rights of center, and over half the paintings employ a deep, woozy green that weighs heavily on Rockwell's mahogany palette.
There is no question that certain Rockwell prints have an undeniable sentimental charm--the ruddy faced sailor being tattooed, and the teen couple after the prom come to mind. At the LA County Museum of Art, his canvas New Television Antenna is downright stunning when paired opposite the mannered, boozy realism of Paul Cadmus' Coney Island. The Art of Medicine, however, has no sublime moments that might offer a deeper appreciation of Rockwell's artistry. The paintings--which are shown under glass, rendering them as flat and shiny as the reproductions they were intended for--are uninspired minor works. Sandwiching these maudlin paintings between exhibitions of Grandma Moses and Faberge eggs, PAM is itching to earn the nickname PTM: the Portland Tchotchke Museum. CHAS BOWIE