Irving Norman
The Artist and the Human Predicament


Irving Norman's (1906–1989) highly detailed paintings are powerful critiques of contemporary life and times painted in the hope of promoting change. Norman believed that by pointing out the inequities, horrors, and foibles of human behavior he might somehow cause people to consider the consequences of their actions. He intended his canvases as public art, so he shunned private patronage and commercial viability. Instead, he wanted his work in public institutions, particularly museums, where “all people could come and study them and contemplate."
Norman saw everything in human terms. His paintings are monumental in scale, yet they teem with detail and are populated by swarming, clone-like figures. These figures are constricted by small urban spaces, caught in the crunch of the urban rush hour, and decimated by the pain of poverty and the horror of war. These themes manifest Norman’s perceptions of modern life and the society in which he lived, but this is relieved by the artist’s jewel-like color harmonies and sharp wit. Once the spectator is engaged, Norman’s unsettling visions cannot be ignored—or forgotten.
As a Jewish immigrant from Poland (he was born Irving Noachowitz), Norman keenly observed this country from the standpoint of an outsider. He came to the United States in 1923, living first in New York and then Los Angeles. His already tumultuous life was forever transformed in 1938 when he went to Spain to defend the Republic against the fascism of General Francisco Franco. Norman did not think he would survive the Spanish Civil War, but he ultimately returned to California. He began to express the atrocities he witnessed through drawing and then painting. In 1940, he moved to San Francisco to study at the California School of Fine Arts and later continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York. When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, he settled permanently in an idyllic valley south of Half Moon Bay.
Norman’s paintings, always uniquely his own, are informed by a sweeping knowledge of art history and manifest the influence of many artists and cultures. During decades dominated by abstraction, he focused carefully on detailed representational imagery and strong social messages. Although today Norman is still little known, his art is now attracting a wider audience. Much of his earlier obscurity stemmed in part from twenty years of surveillance by the FBI. Norman’s youthful political affiliations made him stand out in the McCarthy era, which was marked by a widespread fear—and persecution—of communists. However chilling the effect of such government scrutiny upon one man’s life, Norman’s paintings stand as testimony to his talent, his determination, and dogmatic conscience.
To be sure, Norman pulls no punches and his paintings are profound, shocking, and revealing. “He scares people. . . ,” explained San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein, “Norman’s social criticism hits below the belt.” Unmasking the realities of human nature and the contemporary society in which we live, Norman himself aimed only “to tell the truth of our time.” He harnesses colossal scale and infinite detail to make the immensity and atrocities of war and contemporary society comprehensible. While often horrific and terrifying, these visions contain a deeper message, and that is one of hope.
©2006 Crocker Art Museum



Oil Paintings   1942 - 1952

Oil Paintings   1953 - 1957

Oil Paintings   1957 - 1966

Oil Paintings   1966 - 1972

Oil Paintings   1972 - 1976

Oil Paintings   1977 - 1984

Oil Paintings   1984 - 1989



Watercolors   1939 - 1946

Watercolors   1947 - 1950



Drawings   1940 - 1942

Drawings   1942 - 1944

Drawings   1945 - 1959

Drawing   1958 - 1972

Drawing   1972 ( Studies for The Banquet, 1972-73)

Drawing   1974 - 1989






Irving Norman : War and Peace Monumental Paintings, 1969-1986
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 100 11th Ave. @ 19th, New York, NY 10011
T: 212-247-0082
September 6 - October 25, 2014