Paintings by Irving Norman: The Measure of All Things
By Patricia Junker
Irving Norman (1906-1989) lived and painted in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than forty years. Given his exhibition record and the critical attention that he received in his lifetime, it is both surprising and ironic that he should remain so little known today. Beginning in the early 1940s, shortly after the Polish-born Norman moved to San Francisco to study at the California School of Fine Arts, he exhibited regularly in the annual exhibitions of the San Francisco Art Association and won the Art Association's prestigious Albert Bender Prize in 1945. He had a solo exhibition of drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1942 and a succession of other one-person exhibitions subsequently at various venues. Norman's work was also included in important group shows in both New York and San Francisco.
Moreover, he had several important champions in the local and national art press. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein consistently praised his large and powerful paintings and intricate drawings, and repeatedly called for greater notice among the city's art institutions. In 1977 Frankenstein claimed, ''The neglect of Norman can be traced only in part to the huge size of his pictures. He scares people.... Norman's social criticism hits below the belt." That same year Carter Ratcliff, writing in Art in America, advanced the idea of an Irving Norman exhibition as a particularly worthy celebration of what was original and vital on the West Coast art scene.
Unfortunately, increased visibility did not follow, but Norman's paintings did enter major museum collections in the 1980s, when works were purchased for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Now the first major museum exhibition to survey his work has been mounted by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco -- an exhibition that celebrates the Museums' acquisition of one of Norman's most ambitious paintings, a monumental triptych entitled War and Peace.
In large measure, the artist's attitudes toward art worked against his wide public acceptance. In an era marked by painterly abstraction and cool formalism, Norman painted highly detailed, representational visions of inhuman behavior. Art was for him first and foremost a medium for social reform, and he painted monumental canvases on complex, shocking themes,. intending them as public art. He gave form to the horrors of war and to what he saw as the ruthlessness of capitalism and the arrogance of the power elite. He shunned private patronage and commercial viability, painting his own brand of civic art for public institutions. "The museums are very important in our society," he told an interviewer in 1954. "They are today's cathedrals. I would like to see my work there where people could come and study them and contemplate...."  Norman worked in relative isolation, first in Sausalito and Lagunitas and, after 1960, in a rural setting south of Half Moon Bay. He painted incessantly, producing increasingly larger canvases, working without the encouragement of public recognition or financial security but always steadfast in his faith that these paintings would one day find an appropriate museum setting.
Norman's art grew out of his need to externalize the rage that flowed from his experience in the Spanish Civil War. He was one of a group of some 2800 Americans who served with the Abraham Lincoln battalion, part of the International Brigade, fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. What he saw of war during the brutal defeat of the Loyalist forces in 1938 transformed him. "The experience of war was so powerful, as was the realization that the foundation of this society, all its history is based on war," he said, "So I had to find a way to express this,"  He drew with the conviction of a dedicated reformer and with the clarity of one whose visions had been seared into his mind's eye.
Taking up art relatively late in life -- when he was in his mid-thirties -- he also drew with the intensity of one working against time.
"I did not decide to become an artist," Norman once told an interviewer. "All I decided was that I would like to draw." Returning from Spain at the close of 1938, he settled on Catalina Island, where he joined a loosely-organized life-drawing class. Drawing was his principal medium of expression in the early years; painting came later as the largely self-taught artist mastered each new medium; as Norman said:
"Since I had the visions, the conceptions, I thought I would secure them in black and white, so I began to draw primarily. Later I added color, first colored pencil and then watercolor until I reached the technical limit of these media. Gaining more confidence, I began to concentrate on oil painting. I wanted to give expression to a clear image...."
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