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Summer of ’69 – When Rockwell’s picture-perfect America took a turn

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 paper carried headlines about the Vietnam War. The Freedom movement surged in the months after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and protests emerged at colleges across the country. 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.

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, says 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 says, 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 says, until teachers and parents clashed.

Up the hill at Bennington College, a community of artists were evolving new forms of minimalist color and abstraction, and the museum will hold a companion show of their Color Field work and their relationships with politics, and with the land.

Norman Rockwell came out of a different world. He had become a leading man in New York publishing, but he was struggling with new perspectives.

In 1969, as The Saturday Evening 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 sheriff and a mob, holding each other and bleeding.

In a companion show, the museum will show some of his own work from that time. He was taking on difficult questions on the health of the land and Civil Rights.

So it seems fitting to 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.

Emory Douglass, minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, has agreed to lend some of his cover art from the Black Panthers’ newspaper. 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 hues of the Color Fields painters in the bold, floral patterns and psychedelic designs that flourished from record albums to fashion.

He also sees influences from artists in other cultures, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and more.

These vivid colors swirl in 1969 Illustrated, in Zap comics and prints by Seymour Chwast. Illustration itself was changing, Kowalski says. 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 album 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.


The Woodstock Artist

In a loft in Easthampton, surrounded by his own abstract paintings and the curves of a body drawn in chalk on shadow, Arnold Skolnick remembers being on stage with Janice Joplin. He designed the iconic Woodstock poster, “Three Days of Peace and Music.”

In 1969, he was an award-winning graphic designer in New York, and the poster he created in a last-minute commission, has become legendary. The music festival touched a national nerve, he says. People knocked the walls down to get in. They had driven hours or days to get there, from California, from Seattle, 450,000 people in the pouring rain, in a field with one stage.

Bennington resident Jim Woodward was 15 that summer and recalls the crowd’s intensity. “It was like a Grade B zombie movie,” he says, cars abandoned and people walking in. Viscerally, he remembers the music: Joe Cocker singing “A Little Help from My Friends” and Santana rolling out Latinx rock he’d never heard before and has never forgotten.

“So many of the artists died within a few years,” Skolnick says quietly. Jimi Hendrix played the last set on Monday. Woodward stayed for it, vibrating from three days of little sleep, and heard The Star-Spangled Banner in an intense thrumming solo on electric guitar. —Kate Abbott




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