My first and most enduring encounter with Norman Rockwell was in a bathroom in Boca Raton, Fla. My grandfather is an architect, sculptor and artist, and when he retired he designed and built a house in Boca, wallpapering one of the bathrooms floor to ceiling with Rockwell prints. On family visits, time in the can was spent with a faceful of mid-20th-century Americana. Members of my grandfather's clan had classic Rockwelliana from the war years and the civil rights era burned into our retinas like monitors without screen savers.
When I went off to college, an art history class taught me which artists were canonical and which weren't. I and my sister, who pursued a four-year art degree, learned that the 20th century was about Duchamp, Picasso and Warhol. Certainly not kitsch-mongers like Rockwell. On trips to Florida, we rolled our eyes at our grandfather's admiration for a mere "illustrator."
We were too young to know that tastes and historical judgments are subject to change, in the art world as elsewhere. A few well-placed Rockwell admirers went to bat for his legacy in the late '90s, and a retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2001—his first-ever New York museum show—was a sort of posthumous validation. A major Rockwell exhibit currently at the Smithsonian features paintings from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who are serious collectors of his art (you can decide whether that reflects well or ill on his reputation). Timed tickets for the exhibit, which continues through Jan. 30, are $7.50–$15. —Marc Maximov