In the summer of 1969, Norman Rockwell told a reporter for the Associated Press that his work had changed. He wanted to paint an image “that would bring America back together again — promote understanding.”
He had just finished a broad canvas textured with earth from the Southwest; a Dinee family, a Navajo mother, father and son look down from the ridge at the new cement wall of the Glen Canyon Dam, as it blocks the river and cuts off the water from them.
“I was able in past years to reflect the country’s mood in my work,” Rockwell told the reporter, but now questions are so bitter … Red-cheeked little boys and mongrel dogs no longer typify America.” (The story ran in the Berkshire Eagle on June 3, 1969.)
Around him, he saw images of the country shifting in creativity and protest, experimentation, visions of the future — and violence.
His daily Eagle carried headlines about the Viet Nam War. The Freedom movement surged in the months after the death of Martin Luther King, and protests emerged at colleges across the country, including Williams and Bennington. And in Vermont young back-to-the-landers were driving up the new Interstate to live beside farmers who had lost their land to the highway.
Looking across 50 years
This summer, Norman Rockwell Museum will look back to that changing time in Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated — and celebrate the museum’s 50th year in Stockbridge.
And just north of the border, the Bennington Museum in Vermont will look back to the same time in Fields of Change and Color Fields: 1960s Bennington Modernism.
The 1960s became a complex turning point in national and local history, said Jamie Franklin, curator at Bennington Museum.
Thousands of young people came into rural communities, building communal farms and publishing newspapers, and their influence is still alive in state politics, organic farming, women’s health centers, education and art.
They were urban reformers, he said, who supported large state and national programs. And here they met independent country people who got by on what they had and believed in local government.
Sometimes they met head-on. Mount Anthony Union High School had opened in 1967 as an open-plan center of progressive education, Franklin said — until teachers and parents clashed. In its early years the school saw Broadway plays, a May festival, and music and collaboration with Bennington College on the hill.
Up on the hill, a community of artists were evolving new forms of minimalist color and abstraction. Alongside its broader look at the1960s, Bennington Museum will hold a companion show of Color Field artists and their relationships with larger social and political movements, and with the land.
Changing views of America
Norman Rockwell came out of a different world. He had become a leading man in New York publishing and Saturday Evening Post covers — but he too was struggling with new perspectives.
In 1969, as the Post closed down, Rockwell painted the moon landing for Look Magazine. He had painted scenes for them from the Freedom movement and the right to vote, works like Murder in Mississippi, a young black activist and a white student in the South, shot by a sherrif and a mob, holding each other and bleeding.
In a companion show, the museum will show some of his own work from that time, including Glen Canyon Dam. He was taking on difficult questions on the health of the land and Civil Rights.
Tom Daly, the museum’s curator of education, gives credit for some of this shift to Rockwell’s wife, Molly Leete Punderson Rockwell.
“She encouraged him to paint what he felt strongly about,” Daly said.
In 1969, she also co-founded the Stockbridge Historical Society and put up some of Rockwell’s paintings in the first incarnation of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
So it seems fitting to Daly and Curator of Exhibitions Jesse Kowalski that this summer, visitors here may walk in to Woodstock to the Moon to hear the Beatles singing Come together right now … over me, and Emory Douglass, minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, has also agreed to lend some of his cover art from the Black Panthers’ newspaper.
Abstract color in pop culture
In his 1969 show, Kowalski follows a shift not only in Rockwell’s life, but in the broader art world. Abstract artists led a movement into bright color.
Franklin sees influences from the strident hues of the Color Fields painters in the bold, floral patterns and psychedellic designs that flourished from record albums to fashion. He also sees influences from artists and art traditions in other cultures, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and more.
These vivid colors swirl in 1969 Illustrated at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Zap comics and prints by Seymour Chwast. Illustration itself was changing, Kowalski said. Magazines were turning to photography, and illustrators found themselves working on science fiction covers, comic books and film posters, caught up in conflict and visions of the future.
In that year, Ursula LeGuin published Left Hand of Darkness, space exploration on a planet where people male and female gender are fluid, and Heinz Edelmann created vibrant animations for the Yellow Submarine; the album came out as the Beatles gave their last live performance.
Beside them, album covers recall Janice Joplin, the Who’s Tommy and Santana. She opened Tanglewood here that summer — and they all performed that August in three days of pouring rain at a festival on one stage near Woodstock, N.Y.