STOCKBRIDGE — Sly, fey Andy Warhol and folksy Norman Rockwell. What could they possibly have in common?
Plenty, as “Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol,” now at the Norman Rockwell Museum, spells out. The show runs through Oct. 29. Each worked as a commercial illustrator and, throughout his career, engaged with advertising. Each achieved an uncommon level of celebrity. Each harnessed an American zeitgeist.
That’s where their paths fork. Rockwell served comfort food. He worked on commission, generating illustrations to sell magazines. Warhol slung fast food, responding to cravings that only seem to multiply, channeling America’s obsession with surface and celebrity into high art.
It’s not a fair equivalence. Rockwell, while a deft painter and storyteller, did not plot a new course in American art. Warhol did. He came up as Abstract Expressionism, which many outside the art-world cocoon perceived as indecipherable, sputtered out. His references to familiar products and his affordable print editions made art accessible and fun.
“Inventing America” spends most of its time detailing comparisons. It never zooms out far enough for the big picture — the relative impact these artists had on the way we think about art.
The details, nonetheless, are fascinating, and the art – like comfort food and fast food – hard to resist.
Rockwell, born in 1894, grew up comfortably in New York City. Warhol, born in 1928, struggled with poverty in Depression-era Pittsburgh. Both went to art school and had early success in commercial illustration. Rockwell churned out magazine covers. Warhol drew ads. One of his male fashion figures, hands jauntily in his pockets, hangs beside a Rockwell movie poster of Tyrone Power in the same manly pose.
Even when Warhol was no longer drawing ads, he was drawing ads. The trenchant centerpiece of the exhibition places Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving table scene, “Freedom From Want,” between two of Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” prints. One pictures an ideal and the other everyday reality.
Warhol knew about want. As a child, he ate tomato soup made from ketchup and water. His soup cans resonated, though, not because they’re a cheap lunch, but because, unlike Rockwell’s Thanksgiving dinner, everyone could claim them.
The cultural chords these artists struck clanged like church bells. Rockwell’s apple-cheeked white kids spooning up Kellogg’s Corn Flakes illustrated the cereal packaging; Warhol turned the cereal boxes into art. Rockwell painted celebrities for movie posters such as “Stagecoach.” Warhol painted them to memorialize them — Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly — and tapped into the heightened purity of fandom stirred by grief.
Warhol was a devout Catholic. As a kid, he had rheumatic fever and distracted himself with movie magazines. His depictions of starlets, particularly dead ones, conflate movie idols with religious icons, all gilded and shiny. It may be sacrilegious, but it’s perfectly apt; movie stars, royalty, and the Kardashians of the world seduce with lurid, passionate stories, just as gods, saints, and martyrs did in centuries past.
Often Warhol and Rockwell ran on parallel tracks, but the show kicks into high gear when those tracks cross. Both painted Jacqueline Kennedy. Rockwell’s portrait, for a Saturday Evening Post story that ran in October 1963, shows the her gazing directly at us, yet still reserved, opaque.
Warhol’s two “Jackie” paintings, made in the wake of JFK’s death and taken from photos shot the day of the assassination, are grainy and high-contrast. One, in black and blue, shows her before disaster, grinning in her pillbox hat. In the other, black and beige, she’s ragged. They’re not just more revealing than Rockwell’s portrait; they carry the weight of tragedy in a way Rockwell’s prim Jackie never could. They gave viewers an altar at which to grieve.
Pictures of Richard Nixon show an angel and a devil. Rockwell scaled down Nixon’s jowl, gave him a little more hair, made him look like a nice guy.
Warhol’s “Vote McGovern” poster depicted Nixon in garish tones — his skin is green and blue, his hair violet, his eyes orange. Everything clashes. It’s acidic and brilliant. The depiction made me wish the artist was around today for another presidential portrait.
Rockwell was trying to please. Warhol usually pleased himself, and made bolder art. But in one pairing, about civil rights, Rockwell really shines.
It’s not “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell’s stirring painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals. That’s here, and it’s what Rockwell always painted best — the tale of the plucky kid.
No, it’s a less familiar one, “Murder in Mississippi.” It hangs near Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot,” taken from a news photo of dogs attacking protesters. It’s trademark — unmistakably Warhol — but cluttered, not his best.
“Murder in Mississippi” is not trademark Rockwell. It depicts civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in a glare, being shot point-blank outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. The lighting recalls Goya’s brutal execution painting, “The Third of May, 1808.” We see only the shadows of the murderers.
Rockwell handles the paint lightly — the canvas peeks through in places – and, like Goya, uses color sparingly. All is gray brown, except the red of spilled blood. It’s devastating.
Painting “Murder in Mississippi” Rockwell took a stand not everyone would like. He deployed his best storytelling skills. It’s clear who the heroes are.
Both Warhol and Rockwell dealt cannily in sentiment. Rockwell, a generation older, mostly stuck to feel-good images. Warhol grew up in an unhappier America. His art, despite its quotidian touchstones and frequent glitz, aches with longing. The show, in the end, tells us as much about 20th-century America as it does about these artists. Warhol’s American yearning was darker and juicier than Rockwell’s American dream.
INVENTING AMERICA: Rockwell and Warhol
At Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Glendale Road, Stockbridge, through Oct. 29. 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org