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Irving Norman
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Vilnius, Lithuania
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Half Moon Bay, Calif.
A Surrealist painter, Irving Norman is known for biting social commentaries in his very large allegorical paintings, often drawing on centuries of art history. Born Isaac Noachowitzin what is now Vilnius, Lithuania in 1906, his family moved to New York City in 1923, where he trained as a barber and worked in Monticello, N.Y. Norman joined the Young Communist League and was affiliated with the Communist Party of the USA until 1939. He moved to Laguna Beach, Calif. in 1934, where he opened a barber shop. In 1938 he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (as a machine gunner) to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. After the end of the war late that year, Norman returned to the United States with other members of the Brigade and made his way back to California, first to Santa Catalina Island and then to San Francisco in 1940, where he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). The San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) gave Norman his first solo show in 1942, an exhibition of his drawings. He won the San Francisco Art Association’s Albert Bender Memorial Prize in 1945. With the prize money Norman traveled to Mexico City in 1946, were he saw the murals of Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), which inspired his later art, and then attended classes at the Art Students League of New York City during 1946-47, studying under Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), and others. After returning to the Bay Area, Norman lived in Marin County from 1947 (in Lagunitas, Mill Valley and Sausalito) and then moved to Half Moon Bay, Calif. in 1960. He had a few solo gallery shows in San Francisco during the 1950s and exhibited regularly with the San Francisco Art Association during the 1950s and 1960s. However his large watercolor “Big City,” which included small depictions of scenes in a house of prostitution, was removed from the Art Association’s exhibition at the de Young Museum in 1950 as “a little bit crude,” in the words of the Association’s president, Henry Swift. His large triptych drawing “War and Peace” was exhibited at the Art Association show in 1965. (The drawing led to Norman’s painting of the same title, which was purchased by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1996 for the retrospective exhibition of Norman’s works mounted at the de Young Museum that year.) He had solo shows in the San Francisco Art Commission gallery in 1973, at San Jose State University in 1974 and at San Francisco’s Phoenix Gallery in 1976 and 1976. For many years he ignored private commissions, thinking his art was destined for public viewing. He exhibited regularly and made some private sales in the 1970s, but his works were not acquired for museum collections until the 1980s. Ignored by the “Art Establishment” until late in his life, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in a 1975 review that Norman’s art “scares people, especially museum directors.” He worked as a barber to supplement his income. His works began to be recognized with the inclusion of one of his paintings in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition, “The Human Condition, Biennial III.” A notable feature of his life was the surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Communist and participant in the Spanish Civil War. He was under surveillance from the early 1950s, with visits and interrogation lasting until 1959 when the American Civil Liberties Union helped him file suit against the FBI to stop the harassment. The Post Office continued monitoring his mail until 1974. Norman died at home in 1989. In addition to the retrospective exhibition held at the de Young in 1996, another was mounted by the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento (traveling to other locations) in 2006. The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York held exhibitions of Norman’s works in 2008 and 2014. (TNB 7/2016) Selected bibliography: Day, Ray and Scott A. Shields, eds. Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism. Exhibition catalog. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum; Berkeley: Heyday Books; Irving Norman Trust, 2006.