Irving Norman

Theme/Style – Figurative art, Social Realism, cityscapes

Media – Oils, graphite

Artistic Focus – The utterly unique and powerful work of Irving Norman, teeming with energy and outrage, was both ahead of its time and unclassifiable. The Crocker Art Museum stated, “Through scale and infinite detail, he makes the immensity and atrocities of war and contemporary society comprehensible.” No less impactful and skillfully rendered than his monumental canvases were Norman’s drawings. Intricate, fascinating, and strangely beautiful examples of Norman’s highly individual “Social Surrealism,” they both sow the seeds for and crystallize the force of his large scale paintings.

Career Highlights –

• Born Irving Noachowitz in Eastern Europe in 1906, Irving Norman came to the U.S. in 1923, and worked as a barber near New York City. He and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where he opened a barber shop in Laguna Beach.
• In 1938, Norman went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a machine gunner in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His experiences in the war inspired him to become an artist, and upon his return to Los Angeles in 1939, he settled on Catalina Island and joined a life-drawing group.
• Norman moved to San Francisco in 1940 to study at the California School of Fine Arts, and in 1942 there was a solo exhibition of his drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
• In 1945 Norman had another solo drawing show at the California Labor School, San Francisco. That same year he was awarded the San Francisco Art Association’s Albert Bender Memorial Prize, by a jury including Victor Arnautoff, Dorr Bothwell, and Robert Boardman Howard.
• By 1946 Norman was attending the Art Students’ League in New York, where he studied with Reginald Marsh among others; he also traveled to Mexico to see and be inspired by the murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
• Largely self-taught except for his study at the CSFA and Art Students’ League, Norman was to work as a barber in San Francisco for 46 years as he continued to create and exhibit his art.
• In 1949 he was included in the 13th Annual Water Color Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. In 1950, Norman’s 7-foot-high watercolor “Big City,” was removed from the Art Association’s annual exhibition because it was deemed “too raw” in its depiction of a brothel.
• Norman had solo exhibitions at San Francisco’s Lucien Labaudt Gallery in 1951 and 1956, and in 1952 his work was included in the exhibition “American Water Colors, Drawings and Prints” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1954 photographer Robert Gorman and Bern Porter published a portfolio comprising a selection of Norman’s work created in his Sausalito studio.
• Norman’s first marriage having ended six years before, in 1955 Norman married a recent émigré from Germany, Hela Bohlen, in San Francisco. In 1956 he exhibited at the city’s Open Air Festival in Aquatic Park, and posted alongside the painting was Norman’s plea for anonymous donations to continue his artistic endeavors.
• In 1957 Norman’s painting “Rush Hour” was included in the biennial exhibition “Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture” at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Norman traveled in Europe in 1958, and in 1959 his solo show took place at the Designer’s Gallery in San Francisco.
• Hela Norman later told stories of Norman being blacklisted for more than two decades during the 1950s due to his early affiliations with the Communist Party. In 1959 the ACLU successfully sued the FBI to stop harassment of the couple, and in 1961 Irving and Hela Norman moved south of San Francisco to a house near Half Moon Bay.
• Norman exhibited two large canvases at the San Francisco Art Institute: his 27-foot-tall “Crucifixion” in 1962, and his triptych “War and Peace” in the 1964 San Francisco Art Association show there. In 1967 and 1970 Norman exhibited his monumental paintings at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY; and in 1973 had a solo show at San Francisco’s Capricorn Asunder Gallery, about which Alfred Frankenstein wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Until recently times were out of joint for Irving Norman. Now the temperature of things is nearly right for him...”
• Indeed, Norman exhibited quite actively in the following years, with solo shows at San Jose State University (1974), at San Francisco’s Phoenix Gallery (1975 and 1976) and Simon Lowinsky Gallery (1978 and 1981), and at the Alternative Museum in New York in 1986. He also participated in the San Francisco Art Commission’s exhibition at Capricorn Asunder Gallery in 1980, and the show “Ceci N’est Pas le Surrealisme” at USC’s Fisher Gallery in Los Angeles. Also in 1984, Norman’s “Subway Rush Hour” was selected by Henry Hopkins for inclusion in “The Human Condition: The Third Biennial Exhibition” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
• When a fire destroyed the Normans’ home and Irving’s studio in late 1988, Irving and Hela Norman remained in Half Moon Bay, and in 1989 Norman passed away while working on a painting. During Norman’s last years a video history was recorded for the Archives of American Art, as well as an interview and profile for local television stations.
• In 1996 the first large-scale exhibition and catalog devoted to Irving Norman’s work was presented at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, entitled “The Measure of All Things: Paintings by Irving Norman.” Other posthumous shows include solo shows in 1990 at San Jose State University, in 1996 at UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco’s Jan Holloway Fine Arts Gallery, and in 2002 at Santa Monica College. In 2006-2007, the exhibition “Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism” took place at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and traveled to the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Utah State University, and American University in Washington, DC.