Painted in 1959, Irving Norman’s The Palace was conceived and created during the last year of the decade when Abstract Expressionism dominated the art world. At the time, two superpowers were engaged in a fully entrenched battle for ideological supremacy, the double helix DNA molecule had recently been discovered, and the cult of McCarthyism and its web of accusations, suspicion and paranoia had finally been wrestled to the ground. Given the timbre of the time, not surprisingly, museum trustees overruled courageous directors when Norman’s paintings were offered as acquisition considerations. Invariably, the work was rejected, euphemistically designated as ‘outside current trends.’ But the deeper truth? Trustees considered the work too confrontational. They worried that donors might frame the work as subversive. Private sales fared no better. Too big, too thought provoking, not decorative. Still, Norman stood tall; he turned, faced the large, empty canvases and designed and painted increasingly complex, densely populated canvases. As for recognition, he rationalized the situation — fame or fortune risked the unsullied nature of an artist’s quest intent upon making the world a better place. To that end, he continually endeavored to pull back the curtain and expose the darker side of the human predicament — the war mongering, the abject corruption, the frantic pleasure seeking, and the dehumanizing effects of modern society – all of it, leavened by his characteristic biting satire. The Palace is a work of that kind of earnest intent; one that stages the dehumanizing effects of urban living, industrialization, and economic disparity.
That Irving Norman refers to this morbid architectural colossus as a palace underscores his sardonic intentions. Encased in steel girded shielding, its edifice has the tooth of a farrier’s rasp and a network of spikes, barbs, and skewers. It has the appearance of a prison as much as a fortress. Ominous and macabre it is built upon a foundation of peonage and servitude, human misery and debasement — a grim reminder of societal dereliction, corruption and greed. As usual, the tragic figures of Norman’s vision are as he noted, ‘distorted figures, connected to their environment so that the space they occupy determines their distortion, usually because of their confinement.’ Crammed into cubicles and crannies, they are reduced to a most ghastly circumstance, trapped and imprisoned, yoked and enslaved, aware of almost nothing except Dante’s warning posted above the entrance to such a place: “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Irving Norman was cagey if not uncooperative when asked to reveal the source material for his off-putting and perplexing visual allegories. Not surprisingly, he looked to Dante Alighieri and one of civilization’s most enchanting creations — A Divine Comedyfor inspiration and ideas. Sympathetic with Dante’s contempt for the way power warps morality, Norman welcomed the opportunity to express in twentieth century terms a fourteenth century genius’ for describing a journey through Hell, the underworld and beyond. Dante shared with Irving Norman a degree of frustration and resentment towards the political system of his time. He had been accused of opposing the Pope, stripped of all property, and condemned to be burnt at the stake if captured. As much as the Divine Comedy envisions the ultimate salvation of the soul, for Dante (as it does Norman) it served another purpose — critical commentary on the sociopolitical problems and the human condition that plagued his time.
Interpret this painting with a view to Inferno, the hellish first realm of Divine Comedy, and Norman’s so-called palace correlates well enough with the poet’s despotic structure of nine concentric circles of immoral sins stacked upon one another. Likely, Norman has paid homage to Dante’s vision by including the poet’s guide Virgil, as well as the love of his life, Beatrice, in the boat as observers, not participants. High above them, a dictator’s balcony and a corpulent power monger whose power thrives and is fed and augmented on the fears and suffering of those he has bent to his will. Not to be entirely morose, Norman has included some delightful touches. Notice, for example ghoulish little putti manning the tiller and boat motor. Also, the outermost eave panels that depict painterly abstractions; one in the manner of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, another, a non-objective cubist derivation. They are sly references to demonstrate what Norman called, ‘the relationship between art and the state of society” and are stationed on the same level, and next to scenes of abject debauchery.
The truth is, there is simply no artist quite like Irving Norman. His story is one of uncommon skill, a man of great humility who translated his war experience and social insights into impactful allegories of unforgettable, often visceral imagery. For decades, he worked in solitude with relentless forbearance and in a veritable vacuum without fame or financial security and outside prevailing trends. He looked to the past, was acutely aware of present trends, and given the human predicament knew he was forecasting the future. As time passed, and the unwieldy stacks of paintings grew ever larger, Norman came to know he was painting for future generations, and not his own; a knowing that the human condition was an essentially unchanged. As one New York Times reviewer mused in 2008, “In light of current circumstances, Mr. Norman’s dystopian vision may strike some…as eerily pertinent,” an observation that recalls more recent events.