Deborah Solomon lives in one of Manhattan’s grand old Upper West Side apartment buildings, with marble floors and elaborate columns fronting stained-glass windows in the lobby. The ninth-floor apartment Solomon shares with husband Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, is spacious and airy, and the living room is chilly this September morning. Solomon pulls a blanket over herself as she settles onto the sofa, offering one to me as well. It’s apparent, as she shares stories of her two grown sons, that Solomon has a knack for establishing a quick rapport, which surely served her well during the eight years she wrote the New York Times Magazine’s “Questions For” column.
Solomon left the Times in 2011 to complete American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish on November 19. Her timing is excellent; three of the illustrator’s iconic works will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in December, and one of them, The Gossips, appears on the cover of Solomon’s book. When she started on the project in 1999, however, Rockwell seemed an unlikely subject for the biographer of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, avant-garde artists esteemed by critics who looked down on Rockwell as a commercial purveyor of sentimental Americana.
Solomon is part of this consensus. “I come from a traditional art historical background,” she says. “I studied art history at Cornell, and we were taught in the ’70s that Jackson Pollock was the savior of American art. After spending my professional life as a biographer thinking about Greenwich Village in the ’50s, I wanted to take the plunge into pop culture. I really didn’t know what I would find about Norman Rockwell, because not a lot has been written about him, other than very puffy tributes. I didn’t have the raft of background literature I had with Pollock, and I did a lot of spadework. I loved doing the research, and Rockwell continually surprised me. He was much more damaged than I expected.”
American Mirror depicts a man who worked compulsively, had intimacy issues, and was married three times. He wasn’t close to his parents and brother, his first wife divorced him, and his second succumbed to alcoholism and mental illness; her death in 1959 may have been a suicide. Rockwell himself was in therapy for many years. “He suffered from extreme feelings of helplessness and dependency,” comments Solomon. “He was the sort of person who was afraid to be alone in his house. I think he really longed for a more companionable world in which everybody greeted you with a smile and a concerned gaze—so he invented it. In his pictures, people look at one another, they focus on one another, they pay attention. They’re an antidote to his feelings of having been ignored by his mother; in compensation, he lavished his gaze on ordinary Americans for the rest of his life. Rockwell’s work, like all great art, springs from emotional necessity.”
Is Solomon, who began her career writing for Hilton Kramer’s staunchly high-art monthly, the New Criterion, calling Norman Rockwell a great artist? “He was an illustrator—different from artists creating work for themselves, because he had to answer to an editor or an art director,” she replies. “But he was able to transcend the category of illustration and throw a monkey wrench into the whole classification process, because his work has held up over time. I think its staying power is a sign that there’s something there beyond mere illustration. Why has this work endured? One reason is, it is so well crafted. In his work, every detail adds to the story; there isn’t anything extraneous. In that sense, it’s like a perfectly edited paragraph, where you just cut and cut until the only thing that remains is what absolutely has to be there.”
Rockwell’s critics, she says, “mostly attack [his work] in terms of its subject matter, which I find incredible, because art historians always say that iconography is not important. They don’t like to pay attention to the subjects of other paintings, so why are they so obsessed with the subjects of his paintings? That’s one inconsistency. Another is, how can we possibly pretend that all abstract painting is superior to all illustration? Would you say that a fourth-rate Robert Motherwell painting is better than all of Rockwell, just because Motherwell is abstract? It makes no sense.”
Solomon wasn’t necessarily planning on writing biographies when she graduated from Cornell in 1979. “I expected to be an art critic. My parents were art dealers, and my father was a sculptor, so art criticism offered me a chance to understand my immediate environment as a child. I love reading art criticism; I sit and read Clement Greenberg”—she gestures to a collection of his essays on the coffee table—“I religiously read my friends Roberta Smith of the Times and her husband Jerry Saltz [New York magazine], Peter Schjeldahl [the New Yorker], and Sandy Schwartz at the New York Review of Books. I really like all the talk that surrounds art; I think it’s part of our cultural experience. I started out working for the New Criterion, before it became a neoconservative sheet, and then I wrote art criticism for the Wall Street Journal for a long time.”
Her instincts, however, were leading her toward writing a biography of Jackson Pollock, which she published in 1987 with Simon & Schuster. PW’s review called Solomon’s first book an “engrossing, level-headed biography... a wonderful glimpse of the shy, rangy Pollack.” Solomon says, “I’m basically interested in a biographical approach to art; when I’m looking at a painting I want to know, when was the artist born? Where did he live? Was he straight or gay, or neither? Who was in his social circle? I feel that enhances my view of a work of art.”
Writing profiles of artists for the New York Times Magazine as a freelancer was a natural journalistic outlet, which eventually resulted in Solomon assuming regular duties as the weekly “Questions For” author. “It used to be done by a variety of writers, but most people thought it was beneath them. I loved it, because I didn’t have to write anything for eight years, just sit on the phone and ask annoying questions.”
Nonetheless, it was a relief to finally be able to devote herself full-time to the Rockwell biography. “I worked on it 18 hours day, seven days a week, for two years, and that was one of the happiest times in my life. It was so much fun, especially at the end, when I could see things coming together and really felt inspired. I couldn’t wait to turn on the computer in the morning, and I wish I could go back to it. My editor, Ileen Smith, had to crowbar the book from me! I still haven’t separated emotionally from it, and I’m very interested in going out there and talking about Norman Rockwell with the public. I feel—and this is the last thing Ileen will want to hear—that I will understand him even better after going on the book tour, because so many people know his work so well.”