Although I dislike having to write about Solomon, I'm very glad to be writing this post, because Reed's review, quite apart from its critical evaluation of Solomon, offers tremendously valuable insight into Rockwell himself.
His review is noteworthy not so much because he sees through these baseless sexual claims, but because he takes a new approach--showing how Solomon abused Rockwell by ripping him out of his context as an illustrator and treating him as a "fine arts" man. Reed draws useful distinctions that ought to be taken seriously by anyone thinking about Rockwell (or illustration, or art in general).
But Reed's claim does strike me as too strong. Let the work be evaluated on its own terms--yes! But still, the analogy of the figure skater being inducted into the hockey hall of fame is not appropriate. Hockey is a clearly defined sport with rules that determine what is, and what is not, a hockey game. Figure skating, likewise, is a clearly defined sport. Nobody engaged in figure skating is engaged in hockey, and vice versa. One cannot say the same of illustration and "fine art." We just don't have the kind of clear lines of demarcation here.
A figure skater simply cannot be making a great hockey play at the same time he is executing a figure skating maneuver. But an illustrator might, in fact, be making fine art at the same time he is making an illustration. Fra Angelico was not an illustrator (at least, not in the modern sense), but he was also not an art-for-art's-sake fine art painter. Yet in doing whatever it was that he meant to do, he simultaneously created great art. I think the same is true of Rockwell.
(There is a complicated connecting point here, that I hope to write about in a future post: Reed puts Solomon in the "death-of-the-author" camp of art criticism, based on something she said in an interview, and thinks that this "fine arts" approach to studying Rockwell's work--which is not "fine art" and hence shouldn't be subjected to the same kind of criticism--has led Solomon astray. I disagree with this for a few reasons, but as I say, it gets tricky and this post will already be pretty long. So for now I have to ignore the issue even though it's an important element in Reed's review.)
Rockwell's own accounts of himself varied: sometimes he was careful to call himself "only" an illustrator. Other times, he laid claim to being a genre painter. But whatever the label, he always wanted to tell a story in his work. That was always what he was up to when he painted. (Almost always, anyway: the most significant exceptions I can think of here are his portraits. But even there, there's often a story in the face.) It didn't matter if he was making a magazine cover--where the story was his own--or an illustration for someone else's story, or even a straight advertising image. He always found a way to tell a story. I wrote a little while ago about one of Rockwell's advertising images. Rockwell was no doubt prompted to make this picture because he was offered a contract by the Western Cartridge Company. But once he'd taken the job, he clearly poured himself into it, and found a way to make the image tell a story. Is that fine art, or illustration, or something else? I wouldn't want to judge. But I wouldn't want to put up walls here, either.
That said, Reed's point is crucially important. We do Rockwell no favors by pretending he was trying to do the same kind of thing as Picasso--they were both "fine arts men"--and assuming that this is what raises Rockwell out of the muck of the world of illustration. The world of illustration is not shameful or mucky, and Rockwell, who deliberately chose to live in it, doesn't need to be pulled out of it by us. Reed points out that the work of understanding Rockwell specifically as an illustrator remains to be done. Solomon has simply not attempted the task--but neither have better writers about Rockwell, really. Reed makes a nice start in pointing out some of the directions such a study could go in.
The review ends noting that such a book needs to be written. It won't be written by me, since my approach is quite different. But I would sure love to read it when it comes out. I'd suggest Roger Reed as its author!