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Irving Norman

American
(1906–1989)

Blind Momentum
1960

Oil on canvas
93.25 x 143 in. (236.855 x 363.22 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1989.7

Visionary artist Irving Norman felt most comfortable with line drawing, and his work in this medium was acknowledged by art historian Alfred Frankenstein a short time after Norman arrived in San Francisco, in 1940, to study art. In 1942 he had an exhibition of pencil drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art (later the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). For large and complex paintings Norman would first prepare a preliminary study in graphite or pen-and-ink, as he did for Blind Momentum.

Blind Momentum presages a lifetime of the artist’s probing of the human condition. Originally bearing the title Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? after Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian masterpiece of 1897, the painting was retitled to signify that though each of us can affect the course of history in small measure, we are all ultimately swept along by forces beyond our control.

In the 1940s Norman began focusing on the rush hour traffic in New York. Periodically he would return to this theme to chart changing conditions over time, with greater prosperity bringing increasing commercialization and thus more congestion on the road. This 1960 depiction of seemingly thousands of vehicles involved in highway gridlock prophetically depicts present–day conditions on Los Angeles’s stacked downtown freeways during rush hour. Conversant with Russian, the artist has large neon signs screaming “cupi” along the sides of the road, derived from the verb “kupit,” meaning “buy!” From today’s vantage point, Norman’s work appears to be asking, with apologies to Gauguin, “How and where do we go from here?”

Oscar Lemer


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