Paintings by Irving Norman: The Measure of All Things

By Patricia Junker



Norman's understanding of painting came from firsthand study of the great monuments of world art. To be sure, he had had some training under painters William Gaw and Spencer Macky at the California School of Fine Arts. And the cash award of $750 that came with the Albert Bender Prize in 1946 enabled him to spend much of that year at the Art Students' League in New York, studying with Reginald Marsh and Robert Beverly Hale. But Norman insisted that the truly formative experiences he had as a student of painting came from his contact with the great painting of the past and present. In New York in 1946 he saw the hyper-realistic figural fantasy paintings of Peter Blume and found them, he recalled, particularly revelatory. Later that year he traveled to Mexico expressly to study the murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and especially Jose Clemente Orozco, whom Norman regarded throughout his life as one of the two great artists of the twentieth century, the other being Pablo Picasso.[8]

Norman described his motivation as a quest to synthesize the abstraction of Picasso -- what he called Picasso's "freedom of design" -- and the social commentary of Orozco. He found this synthesis far more meaningful than the emulation of the German Expressionists, many of whom, to Norman's way of thinking, seemed to lack a social conscience. "They painted still lifes," he said.[9] But the break-up of the human figure in Picasso's cubist works took on profound meaning for him; he saw it as both a disturbing act of brutality and a general comment on human cruelty. Norman sought to wed this appalling symbol of barbarity to the clear narrative art of the Mexican muralists, finding a language of form that could be widely understood.

Norman's work affects viewers at a gut level, but it is also cerebral and informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of history, art history, literature, and current events. His sources are so varied and wide-reaching as to be beyond the knowledge of most viewers, yet the impact of his paintings at first glance is arresting and his message is always painfully clear. Figures are based upon ancient and modern sculpture; color grows from his fascination with stained glass windows; compositions and iconography expand upon the work of artists as diverse as Hieronymous Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Otto Dix. Indeed, the strength of his conception of timeless themes derives in large part from a clear understanding of the great traditions of heroic art, sacred and secular.

The idea of war shaped Norman's view of history, and consequently, it dominated his art. The monumental triptych War and Peace of 1965-67 is, therefore, an important key to understanding Norman's entire body of work. It represents the culmination of ideas he was developing from the mid-1940s onward, and its various elements led, in turn, to numerous subsequent paintings, some of which -- like To Have and Have Not (Charity Gala) of 1980 -- ostensibly have little to do with the theme of war and peace. Norman typically worked on only one composition at a time, each drawing or canvas fully absorbing his attention. But the complexity of his ideas suggested endless possibilities for pictorializing what are, in fact, but a few broad themes: the horrors of war; the exploitation of the many by a few; the oppressive, dehumanizing urban environment; and the consequences of technology. The interconnectedness to Norman's paintings produced over more than forty years derives from the artist's compulsion to try to tell in episodic fashion the never-ending story of human cruelty.

Norman began work on War and Peace in 1965. He first rendered it in its entirety in a highly finished pencil drawing, also a triptych, measuring more than six feet long. Elements from earlier drawings and paintings made their way into the elaborate composition but there is nothing exploratory about the preparatory drawing for War and Peace. It indicates a clear inner vision realized fully and without any hesitation.

Upon completing the drawing, Norman then repeated the composition nearly exactly on the larger canvas without squaring the design for transfer. The underdrawing of the painting was done in India ink, which required that the canvas be laid flat. He placed the canvas on the floor and constructed a large movable wood-plank bridge that allowed him to work suspended above the surface.[10] The canvas occupied him for more than a year, possibly into early 1967.[11]

Norman's references to war are many and varied and combine to reiterate the unending cycle of war and peace that is the sad story of human history. The central figures immediately call to mind the antagonists in Jacques Louis David's The Sabine Women Stopping the Battle between the Romans and the Sabines, of 1799. But Norman may also have drawn upon images of an ancient Hittite storm god for the figure at left.[12] His humorous parody of art history does, in fact, engage the viewer, although the humor immediately turns to shock at a second glance. Throughout the central panel are images of primitive and modern combat, from the central figures standing toe-to-toe in the traditional boxing stance, wielding clubs and shields made of human beings, to the hordes of figures crammed into air raid shelters in fear of attack from an unseen aggressor. They are at once symbolic images of war and images that seem all too familiar to those of Norman's contemporaries who could still recall the horrors of two world wars. What is more, in the mid 1960s at the height of the Cold War these images would have resonated with viewers who had only recently lived through the Cuban missile crisis and who saw the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Characteristically, Norman here offers no particular political point of view; all combatants are losers in his world.

Although Norman alludes to the threat of the atomic bomb, his view of war remains one of conventional hand to hand combat. As he once explained it, he believed that the threat of nuclear holocaust was a contrivance of governments designed to encourage popular support for the massive conventional weapons industry. "They exaggerate the conditions or results of war, which enables them to use lesser means [of warfare]," Norman told an interviewer.[13] The most horrific consequence of war was always, in Norman's estimation, not mass destruction but something more perverse: the suffering of the living brought on by fear, disorientation, dislocation, and physical pain.

The central panel emphasizes the persistence of primitive forms of combat, yet the left hand panel of the triptych makes it clear that the engine of war is fueled by technology. The sheer beauty of this panel at first obscures its horrifying details. Norman represents the furnaces of war as human figures, a grim reminder that man forges the tools of his own destruction -- to say nothing of the memories of the Nazi genocide that they evoke.

The right-hand panel reveals human exploitation at the hands of big business -- a dubious "peace." In this scene, captains of industry in their spacious board rooms high above the city streets control the lives of working men and women -- and Norman shows us the details of those lives, the individuals performing very specific and characteristic human labors. Here human beings are, in Norman's words, "formed by the space," and they are thus cramped and curled, unable to move in their too-small rooms.[14] Norman's skyscrapers are themselves missile-like forms, agents of destruction. "What determines our cities is just business.... Profits... there's no human consideration at all," Norman once said, referring to his experience living in New York in the 1920s and 30s. He blamed capitalism for the crowding and ugliness of American cities:

The slums in New York were built by the Astors because they owned most of the land on the lower east side, and they built apartments for the immigrants and gave them as little space as possible so they could get as much [as possible] out of it. And that goes for big office buildings, too -- get as much space of out it as they can.... So, there was a need for cities, but not a need for this kind of city; especially with communication, you didn't have to congest yourself like that.... With magnificent speed you can spread out; the country is big and beautiful. And they concentrate, concentrate, concentrate to get every penny they can out of the acre or foot of space. Profits...inhuman, inhuman. [15]

By his immaculate rendering of details, Norman makes the immensity of war comprehensible. But more important, he also makes the blessing of human resilience deeply felt. His art is a reminder that human beings can endure the worst physical pain and terror and find the strength to continue in their lives. In War and Peace, a single tulip and a lone daisy are conspicuous foreground details, having emerged from the small patches of grass not buried under piles of human remains. As the dark and sobering triptych and related works in this exhibition manage to make clear, it is the vast capacity for hope, even in the face of the most unimaginable, unspeakable suffering, that is the most profound measure of the human spirit.


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