How do you examine an entire life? The answer, if you’re art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon, is through meticulous research, years of reporting and a wealth of patience.
Solomon’s newest book, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, is a biography of the highest caliber: It is both a dynamic observation of the complex role of the artist, as well as an all-encompassing view of a man often ignored by the keepers of the modern American art canon.
From Rockwell’s earliest artistic inklings as a boy drawing copies of his battleship trading cards, to his garnered success and fame illustrating 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, Solomon captures the high and low points of the artist’s career, as well as his personal history and the histories of those around him, with a vivacious curiosity. While some biographies fall prey to a detached and stiff tone, Solomon’s intimate language is complemented by brisk pacing, providing a narrative that feels refreshing, nimble, and keyed into the present, even well after Rockwell’s heyday.
Much like Rockwell, the grandson of a struggling painter, Solomon grew up with art in her blood. Raised in New Rochelle, New York—incidentally where Rockwell spent a portion of his career—Solomon’s parents were both art dealers and her father, a sculptor. Rather than become an artist herself, however, Solomon took a shining to art criticism. “Art criticism and the study of art,” she says, “became a way for me to understand my immediate surroundings.”
Solomon eventually enrolled at Cornell University, majoring in art history, and went on to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Though she has spent a significant amount of time working as a journalist, most prominently writing the “Questions For” column for the New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2011, Solomon feels “most at home” in the world of art criticism. “It’s such a strange sub-division of critical writing,” she says. “But nothing gives me more satisfaction than reading a description of a painting. It’s pretty hard to write.”
American Mirror began its life in 1999, as an article in New York Times Magazine, and then took 12 years to research and report, which is unsurprising given the sheer amount of detail found in its pages. When asked why a Rockwell biography feels notable at this time, 35 years after the artist’s death, Solomon cites an American academic preoccupation with post-war artists, and those working in the abstract, especially. “I wanted to get out of that world,” she says, referring to her previous biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, “and this gave me access to a whole vein in American culture that really has not been looked at much. A whole parallel art universe.”
The original draft was, Solomon says, double in size. “You throw out a lot of material, because you are trying, in the end, not just to document the life, but to vocalize it,” she notes. “I like to think that my favorite sport is extreme editing. I’m good at whittling away until there’s nothing left, except what absolutely has to be there.”
Not without humor, Solomon adds, “You can’t keep it all, because if you keep it all, you end up with a book that reads like the New York City phonebook and one that’s equally large—you’ll end up with a doorstopper. You have to shape the narrative and basically write about the things that interest you.”
And what piques Solomon’s interest the most? “I’m really interested in people that stand alone, who put something into the world that nobody else has added, and no one else could have,” she says. “Artists, to me, are the real aristocrats. Because they have the courage to stand alone.”