A modern, diverse take on Rockwell and America, at Montclair Art Museum
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
In particular, the famous painting “Freedom From Want,” which shows a “traditional” middle-class white family having Thanksgiving dinner, sparked conversation among Meiners’ family. California’s Proposition 8 — to ban same-sex marriage — had passed in 2008, and the legal battle against it continued into 2010. Meiners started talking to her kids about their uncle, who was involved in the movement to support marriage equality, and asking them questions: What makes up a family? And who decides?
Meiners later decided to recreate some of the famous paintings — 18 of them — in staged photographs, with the intention of modernizing Rockwell’s original works as well as sparking new conversations about racism, sexuality, mental health, addiction and religion. That work is now on display at the Montclair Art Museum under the name “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell,” a title proposed by Ira Wagner, recently named the museum’s director.
Meiners has a background in cultural anthropology, and she began researching how the political climate of Rockwell’s time influenced his paintings. She soon realized topics depicted in Rockwell’s painting (including race, parenting and freedom) could be brought into different contexts.
“I spent a couple of years mulling over some of the other paintings and how I related to them in a more contemporary language,” Meiners said.
In “Revisiting Rockwell,” Meiners takes us to see America with a different set of eyes, where what were once viewed as “normal” subjects are replaced by diverse characters from different backgrounds. Meiners challenges us to ask harsh questions about what we take for granted as standard, conventional or traditional.
For example, in one of her multiple takes on the painting “Freedom of Worship,” Meiners replaced the group of white Christian worshippers with Muslims reading the Quran instead of the Bible. The piece — titled "Freedom of Religion" in Meiners' rendition — was posted on social media during Inauguration Day in 2016, which in itself was provocative. Incoming President Donald Trump had proposed shutting Muslims out of the country in his campaign just months before.
“What I am trying to do is to remind myself that there are people born in this country that are constantly being put down, or their rights being taken away,” Meiners said.
She said wanted to reflect a context beyond her own, beyond the connections she typically had in her own life.
Gail Stavitsky, Montclair Art Museum curator, was doing research on Rockwell’s paintings when she learned of Meiners’ series. Stavitsky decided to bring the project to Montclair.
“We really have no idea exactly how timely it was going to be in terms of the concept of freedom and democracy,” Stavitsky said.
She said the work is powerful for its reflection of multicultural diversity, and because it updates Rockwell’s paintings “from this sort of nostalgic view of mid-20th Century American life to something ... much more timely and complex.”
Stavitsky said it “shows how much more complicated our lives and our society is now.”
But most importantly, Stavitsky added, Meiners points out things that haven’t changed — such as the pressures to conform to social expectations. In her photograph “Girl Interrupted” — a recreation of Rockwell’s 1954 “Girl at the Mirror” — Meiners explores the pressures young girls face in contemporary America. In both Rockwell’s original and Meiners’ update, a young girl stares in a mirror with a magazine on her lap. The images are strikingly similar — only the woman in the magazine has significantly changed, to reflect an updated standard of conventional beauty.
Meiners’ works are complemented by three original Rockwell paintings and other archival documents. Central to Meiners’ exhibition are her reinterpretations of Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom From Fear” and “Freedom of Want,” originally published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Stavitsky had been in conversation with Meiners since 2018 to bring the exhibition to Montclair. They didn’t anticipate it would open in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s been a challenge for the museum overall.
“We did not have visitors from March until September. Maintaining numbers have been difficult,” Wagner said.
Yet, as some other museums had to sell their collections to stay afloat, Montclair Art Museum didn’t. Wagner said the museum was helped by federal grants, and relied on its existing funds while paying close attention to expenses.
Plans the Montclair Planning Board approved in 2019 to create an outdoor public space — including a sculpture garden, and an area with a water wall and a reflecting pond — have been placed on hold. But the museum has expanded its galleries to accommodate more people, and will be using outdoor tents for in-person classes as well as a summer camp.
“We continue to build back and learn from last year to continue moving forward,” Wagner said.
Meiners’ work, Stavitsky said, is a particularly unique experience at the museum.
“And then also to see the context of the original [Saturday] Evening Post magazines and kind of put that all together, and be able to have a conversation about how that all relates to what is going on now — I think people would find it very engaging,” she said.
“Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” is open to the public through June 13.