Teeming With Discontent

Irving Norman's paintings are filled with cramped images as in
Irving Norman's paintings are filled with cramped images as in "From Work," giving viewers a sense of claustrophobia. (Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

Six years ago I stumbled across the art of Irving Norman.

"Squirming with anguished life in every corner," I wrote, about the half-dozen eccentric paintings I had just seen at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. Those few examples -- for the most part looking like misanthropic "Where's Waldo" illustrations -- bore "extended and close study."

People, now's your chance.

At the American University Museum, "Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism" offers a career-spanning survey of 14 works on paper and 25 large canvases by the obscure, Lithuanian-born artist. And when I say large, I mean large. At 27 feet, "Crucifixion" is the tallest painting ever shown at the museum; the scathingly antiwar "War and Peace," a perverse three-panel altarpiece considered by the left-leaning artist (1906-89) to be his most important work, is 17 feet across. Like the rest of his art, they itch with discontent.

Discontent with what? The military-industrial complex, corporate greed, elitism, consumerism, religious hypocrisy, pollution and all forms of social injustice. What else you got? The events that most shaped his life explain why: The 11 years spent in New York City after immigrating to the United States at age 17 introduced the former Isaac Noachowitz to what he would come to see as the soul-deadening nature of modern urban life. Then, in 1938, fighting against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, he came to know more literal horrors.

These twin obsessions, hell on earth and death, inform his art. It teems with coffins, real and metaphorical. In Norman's imagination, emaciated human figures are crammed like sardines -- or corpses -- into subway cars ("From Work"), conveyor-belt highways ("Blind Momentum") and skyscrapers ("Big City"). Life is a nasty, brutish and short business from cradle to grave, interrupted only by bouts of unhealthy eating, joyless copulating and slavishly serving our corrupt masters.

No wonder his art sold poorly, if at all. He supplemented his art income working part time as a barber and never became well-known outside the San Francisco Bay area, where he ultimately settled. Never mind that his style of cartoonish surrealism was out of step with all dominant art trends of his time: abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism. They just aren't pretty pictures. Besides, who likes to look at art that wags its finger in your face?

All of which may be true. Norman's art is difficult and dense, yet hard to look away from, even today. Maybe especially today. As a San Francisco Chronicle critic wrote in 1970, presciently summing up what remains so compelling about Norman's disturbing art: "You may not like what he reveals. You probably didn't like what you read on the front page this morning."

Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism Through Jan. 27 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW Contact:202-885-1300. http://www.american.edu/museum. Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 to 4; also open one hour before performing arts events in the Katzen and from 6 to 8 on Open Arts Nights (select Thursdays while the university is in session; the next event is Dec. 6). Admission: Free. Gallery talk: Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum, will discuss Irving Norman's work Dec. 1 at 4.

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