Frightening ‘cause it’s true

Why Irving Norman’s surreal paintings are the most socially relevant exhibit the Crocker’s had in years

Irving Norman, “To Have and Have Not,” oil on canvas, 1979-1980.

Irving Norman, “To Have and Have Not,” oil on canvas, 1979-1980.

Some movies you can watch once, twice and more, and with every screening you catch something new. Irving Norman’s paintings and drawings are like that. Stand in front of his work. Soak in the activity. If you leave and come back, it’s a sure bet you’ll see something you missed the first time.

Norman’s “War and Peace” oil triptych stretches over a vast 108 by 210 inches of highly detailed, colorful imagery. Two combatants are tensed to trade blows. The ground, cracking below their feet, is actually dwellings where countless crammed, distressed faces peer out. In the background, a graveyard flies flags of the world.

The five-year anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, but the world is still reverberating from its impact and long-term aftermath. Painted in 1964, Norman’s piece is relevant today. Look closer, and you’ll catch the bodies also underfoot, piled in the wake of war like a Holocaust scene. Look again to see the patches of green grass—a relief from the horrors of war—each blade indelibly and painstakingly defined. That’s just the center of this piece that is flanked by the imagery of a war machine financing the bloodshed connected to the capitalism of society. There are faces and more faces, each different, ensconced in skyscrapers and trapped in triangular cars zooming through the city. You still haven’t seen it all.

Thanks to the first impression Norman’s work had on Scott Shields, the chief curator at the Crocker Art Museum, Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism opens at the Crocker on September 23. Running until January 7, it’s an eye-opening show of 25 large-scale paintings and 14 works on paper.

Shields was interning at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1996 when Patricia Junker, the museums’ associate curator (now the curator at the Seattle Art Museum), invited him on a little excursion.

“We drove to a storage unit and met [Norman’s wife] Hela,” Shields remembered. “She opened up a door and started pulling these amazing paintings out into the sunlight. It was like Pandora’s box, these beautiful images filled with the evils of the world. We’d pull a piece out and gasp and jump up and down,” he said, astonishment still filling his voice 10 years later.

Even though Norman used jewel-like color, there’s a film-noir quality to his work that casts an almost sinister glaze over its biting social commentary. Although his major influences were Pablo Picasso and the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco, you can also see Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya and a sense of satire similar to what the French artist Honoré Daumier was noted for.

Irving Norman, “Cross … Road,” oil on canvas, 1973.

There’s an Orwellian chill in the faces of the masses. In 1954’s “The Bridge,” drone-like people drive with their mouths open and their eyes closed, like baby birds waiting for the worm to drop. A few with knowing faces, eyes and mouths wide open, offer silent screams.

You have to wonder about the person wielding such a powerful paintbrush. Norman’s poverty-stricken childhood became more difficult after the 1915 German invasion of his hometown, Vilnius, Poland. After a short barbering apprenticeship, 17-year-old Norman made it to New York in 1923. He moved to Los Angeles and finally settled south of Half Moon Bay, where Hela, his wife of 34 years, still lives. He was granted American citizenship days before the stock market fell in October 1929 and later became affiliated with the American Communist Party. In 1938, he volunteered to fight abroad in the Spanish Civil War as a machine-gunner.

“When he came out of the war in Spain,” Hela noted, “Irving said, ‘America hasn’t really had war the rest of the world has experienced.’ What he painted was a civil war in our cities.”

He expressed war atrocities and other injustices first through drawing and then painting. He studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and later at the Art Students League in New York and no doubt was influenced by Spanish war posters.

“The posters were the communication with uneducated masses to save themselves,” Junker explained. “It was easy to overthrow the masses because of illiteracy, but they could understand the imperative through the visual. The arts educated and empowered.”

The Normans traveled widely through Europe. They flew to New York, rented a car and drove 110,000 miles around the country, visiting all the major museums and many industrial sites. “We visited the Ford and the Heinz factories, big office buildings and drug companies,” Hela recalled. “We saw pharmaceutical workers sitting in dark rooms looking at pills.”

They visited Mexico to see the murals, especially Orozco’s work. They toured Africa. “Everything got expressed in his paintings. Irving did not see people as good and bad in this tragic division of humankind. He saw all of us trapped in the ‘Blind Momentum,’” Hela said, referring to a 1960 Norman painting. “If you look close, you see cars expressed as triangles. Theoretically, what keeps them going is movement—no wheels in front. We all know this society stops without movement. Then all things come crashing down.”

Singer-songwriter Graham Nash, known for his songs of protest against war and political atrocities, felt a commonality when he saw Norman’s work. Nash spoke with SN&R from Pittsburgh on the final night of his Freedom of Speech tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“Simon Lowinsky owned the Phoenix Gallery in San Francisco,” Nash recalled. “He wanted to turn me on to this painter because of my anti-war, for-people [stance]. We drove to a warehouse in the Marina district, and he started pulling out paintings.”

That day he bought a drawing, the study for “War and Peace,” the first of four pieces of Norman’s work Nash loaned the Crocker for this exhibition. “This thing is a masterpiece,” Nash enthusiastically explained. “I immediately recognized a very similar tone to mine, one who understood the world game and didn’t like it and its ruins of politics.

“Irving was way ahead of his time and very profound. I first met him in 1972,” Nash recalled. “He was a very gentle man; that made me even more attracted to his work. Normally, people who make that kind of work are angry or frustrated, or quick to tell you their opinion. He wasn’t any of them.

“I saw a large painting. ‘What’s this called?’ I asked him. ‘It’s for us,’ Norman replied. ‘It’s called “To Be Remembered.”’”

Nash got it. “Most artists want to affect their world, affect the people and be remembered for it,” he concluded.

Norman’s work is glaringly absent from contemporary art-history books. In an era when the Red Scare was flaming high, and blacklisting was common, the FBI didn’t forget his past Communist ties. They tailed him, keeping a file that spanned over two decades, even though he had long severed any political-party connection.

“His work is very critical of the direction the society is moving,” Hela remarked. “Irving felt compelled to address our everyday lives, giving respectful attention to all human beings. People thought that Irving’s work was primitive, from strong emotion. Everything that floated out of his brush was based in reality.”

Charles Eldredge, professor of American art and culture at the University of Kansas, wondered how Norman had slipped through the cracks. In 1986, when he was the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, he visited California artists, including Irving Norman.

“I was so impressed with the man and his painting, and how had I not heard about his work?” Eldredge reflected. “It was so powerful. I bought a piece for the Smithsonian. It’s work that draws you—so individual, genuinely felt and strongly expressed. My memories of him are of a serious and thoughtful, gentle man. I had difficulty visualizing him as a machine-gunner, but the feelings that fueled the young man’s passions were still evident.”

“A lot of artists and philosophers gave up on humanity, but Irving had a faith in humanity that had a religious aspect,” Hela revealed. “He saw validity in the symbolism. He painted ‘The Crucifixion,’ and he was a Jew. He saw an exemplary man in Jesus.”

Norman painted large. “The Crucifixion” is taller than the walls in the Crocker’s Herold Wing, so the museum has creatively displayed it.

Sometimes it took Norman a few months to finish a painting; other times, more than a year. “There are 80 windows in ‘World Business Center,’” the artist’s wife said. “Irving said, ‘Each one is a picture in itself.’”

In 1988 the Normans’ house burned, and a large number of his pieces were lost. The next year, Norman passed away. In 1996, his widow contacted Michael S. Bell, who had worked at the Oakland Museum of California and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “He advised me to send out a letter about Irving’s work and sell it for $1.86 per square inch,” Hela recalled. “He said, ‘That’s how things were done in the Renaissance.’ I sent that letter to about 80 or 90 museums across the country.”

One of those letters ended up in Junker’s hand and sent her and Shields out to that storage unit. Now Norman’s work is in a number of public and private collections nationally, including the de Young Museum. The Crocker acquired Norman’s 1954 oil painting “My World and Yours” at Shields’ suggestion.

“There’re still people out there who don’t think this [type of work] has a place,” Shields observed. “One curator said he wasn’t even interested ‘if it’s not something I can take down my Andy Warhol for.’”

“But the past has caught up with Irving’s work,” Shields concluded. “He was too far ahead—the granddaddy of a generation who’s produced a lot of similarities about the human narrative. He did this before TV, and then when TV was showing Howdy Doody and Leave it to Beaver. This is not Beaver’s world.”