FRANKFURT.- A quick and simple answer to the riddle of why C. Michael Nortons paintings are not better known is that in America, at least, there remains a suspicion of vivacity in the fine arts. Presumably, thats something best left to the popular arts: pop music, Hollywood movies, fashion, Las Vegas; all that is garish and frivolous. As Leo Steinberg pointed out in his great essay, Other Criteria, this suspicion of any peacocking in the fine arts goes back to the Puritan heritage of American arts and letters, and while that aesthetic hegemony has been breaking down over the last century it still persists in the low incident surfaces and simultaneously hip and monastic blacks, reds, and whites of neoconceptual painting. And there is indeed something comparatively over the top about Nortons painting: all that color, impasto overlay, and vaulting trajectory. However, it doesnt take too much time in looking at his work too appreciate how his expressive painterly energies are supported by structure and seek to elaborate further structural complications. These are paintings that shock with color intensity and material plasticity, with signs of impulse over deliberation, and then roll back to unveil deep structural considerations and an investment in historical conversation.
In the mid 1990s, Norton was painting largely in blue and white, with black as structural punctuation and other colors peaking through the writhing brushwork. The compositions proposed a segmented interior architecture, like the post-Cubist interiors of Picasso and Gorky. Norton fills each rectangular plane with curving impasto paint strokes, reminiscent of the build up of marks in Pollocks Eyes in the Heat (1946). And the Pollock associations are sustained by the compartmentalization within these compositions, which has always reminded me of the preabstract paintings of Pollock such as The She Wolf and Guardians of the Secret. This combination of rectangular planes functioning as panels or containers of more gestural, curvilinear marks is also strikingly reminiscent of the graphic effects of Pierre Alechinskys COBRA paintings, a resonance which suggests that, while American Abstract Expressionism was the ground breaking movement, any consideration of the full range of meanings put in play by the post war style of gestural Abstract Expressionism will ultimately have to include a co-equal engagement with Art Informel, Tachisme, and the COBRA painters. Such a comparison resituates Nortons painting within a deeper and broader mainstream than we might have imagined.
By the latter part of the 1990s, Norton starts to let small sections of the sized linen ground appear through the gestural blizzard in paintings such as White Window (1996-97). Even at this early stage of development, his decision radically transformed the experience of reading paint pictorially from a turbid field, which was nonetheless the ground zero for traditional pictorial illusion, to a skin: like a peeling sheet of wallpaper revealing the wall underneath. One obvious precedent for this surface reading is Mimmo Rotellas Nouveau Realisme paintings, where the paintings image and surface is created from the peeling away of overlaid metro posters. But Norton is painting rather than practicing decollage. By 2003 he is scumbling paint on with a knife across areas of linen masked with tape, creating webs or netting patterns that reveal the linen, slightly glistening with its coating of polymer sizing. Some of the broad, cursive brush strokes are hanging on as a substrate over which the masked-out nets float, but they gradually disappear over the course of the ensuing decade. Going forward, Nortons drawing with paint is going to appear at first glance to be more detached from personalized gesture.
By 2005 and 2006, Norton finds a more irregular spacing for the holes in his nets, so that the openings onto the linen ground more closely resemble charred negatives of Jasper Johns flagstones than they do the holes in netting (though these, too, reappear on occasion). In paintings such as Catskill (2006) and Ornette (2006) the linen ground is more completely exposed and on its own terms. The holes are there, but the other broad painterly passages begin as a scraping into linen ground and the linen itself has become the principal field color, warming the entire palette with its light greenish-umber tonality.
Within his painted passages Norton is by this time building up layers of color through scraping or squeegeeing color on color, so where the paint declares itself as a distinct material layer on top of the linen it also opens up into a separate optical field that you can see into. It is this intensive doubling of field space for the eye that is utterly distinctive in Nortons painting, but I first want to address three giants with whom his work shares some commonalities.
From 2006 on, it is possible to isolate three major painters with whom Norton is having a deep and extended conversation: Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns, and, increasingly, Frank Stella. This is an intimidating group for even the most ambitious painter, but Norton takes them on with aplomb. The outline and dispersal of the holes in relation Johns flagstone patterns has already been mentioned, but Norton is also drawing on the legacy of Johns reiteration of the objecthood of the stretched canvas. The activation of the linen ground incorporates the whole object of the stretched linen strainer into the picture, a reinsistence of the thingness of the painting that Johns intensified like no prior painter.
The Richter reference is in Nortons paint application, wherein he pulls paint across paint, leaving blurry streaks of color on top of different colors pulled the same way. The visual texture of Nortons color-oncolor scumblings is harder and faster than Richters squeegee pulls of color into color, which I think is clearly the result of Nortons choice of acrylic over oil. Acrylic dries faster and so the top coat is tending to overlay substrata more than mingle with it, though in spots you can see the top color imbedding itself in the taffy-pull of the under colors. The effect is dazzling in paintings such as the very large What a Wallop (2005-2008), where successively lighter planes of yellow scan across streaks of green, black, red, and white in vertical compartments of varying width and regularity. The compositional compartments, themselves, move from an irregular or broken pattern on the left to a more geometric vertical alignment on the right. Norton can take years to arrive at the chromatic and material fullness that his major paintings display. What a Wallop took three years to complete and the aptly named Worth the Wait (2009-2010) took two. So much for acrylic being a necessarily fast medium.
Norton continued to organize his compositions largely by adjacent vertical banding up through early 2010, when he introduced a new element: a tensile grid created by masking with tape, as in Sidewinder (2010-2011). In Sidewinder, the linearity of the grid is still subsumed by the overall structuring of vertical compartments, but the gridding virtually takes over the composition of the subsequent Im Celebrating the Vastness of Our Ignorance (2011). Or perhaps the narrower width of the picture seems to collapse into a grid of nearly the same structure, without the broader bands of paint-on paint overlay that stretch the horizontal dimensions of Sidewinder. The warm ground of the areas of exposed linen allow Norton much more leeway to experiment with explosive, near dissonant chords of color, so that the chilly and acidic violet and white combinations, which seem to be popping off the surface of the painting on the left and coagulating like a bruise on the right arent simply (almost) too sour expressions of a spectrum palette, but an essay on stretching away from a middle value, earth toned base.
Norton never really abandoned the curvilinear gesturalism stored up in his earlier paintings and it reappears in his later paintings as a foil for the mentholated stylishness of his taped-off grids. The contraction and expansion of the grids themselves, particularly in the large scale of Nortons larger paintings suggests Stellas Deco Baroque (and Grotesquerie) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Stella was setting illusionistic geometry against an expressionist gesturalism in an almost virulent spectrum palette. The illusionism in Nortons paintings only seems to threaten to break out of the rectangle in Baroque fashion.
The real sense of life-giving space in his paintings can be located in the surface breaks: where the edges of the irregular holes or the ruled, masked-out lines meet the linen ground; or where different directional velocities collide, as in the torqued gestural contrapposto in the constellation of fiery, painterly forms in A Sentinel Wolf (2012), or the rhythmic punch of the three mauve pink curvilinear gestural constructions that ride horizontally converging straight angles coming in from the left hand side of the picture in Pink-E (2011).
As noted, Nortons color both explodes against and is grounded by the exposed linen grounds of his paintings, but the linen is also, simultaneously, spatially ambiguous and a material ground zero where the constructed nature of his illusionism is laid open for inspection.
And in spite of the materially radical nature of this exposure of constructed pictorality, the fourth painter who might be added to conversation Norton is having with Johns, Richter and Stella is really a figurative artist. That would be Francis Bacon, whose flayed figures wrestle or sexually entangle in schematically painted rooms that often seem to float like stage-painted skeins on an absolute ground of unpainted linen (though there may be a priming coat on the back).
Paintings should be viewed both as if they are the first thing in the world that one sees and for the range of contexts that are awakened by our need to interpret them. Nortons paintings are incredibly dynamic: chromatically and spatially ambitious; and seductive in their exposed processes. They express joy in their making. But they are also deeply invested in the painting culture of the post WWII era. They are ecstatic rather than hermetic, but they also thoughtfully measure an almost impossibly wide range of the most ambitious Modernist painting, spanning an even longer history than the last seventy years or so. Try to get back far enough on paintings Like A Sentinel Wolf, Cutting Grass (2013), or Sentinel Blues (2013) so that you can see only the essentials of their overall compositional structures. When I do this I think not only of Deco rhythms, but also of the palette, compositional twists and brittle, but powerful torques of the Viennese Secessionist school, particularly those of Klimt. And a painting like Euclid (2012-2013), while holding almost all the elements already mentioned in other recent paintings, is reaching some new level of integration where references to other artists, even Richter, arent what come to mind before the broken topographies that Norton is casting into a grand symphonic space like no other. Norton isnt painting at any one of his avatars, or even attempting a synthesis. His painting now holds its own with any of them while setting its own contemporary agenda.
Stephen Westfall has exhibited his paintings to considerable acclaim in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He has had shows at Lennon Weinberg Gallery, Galerie Zurcher, and at Galerie Paal; his work can be found in several public collections, including the Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Munson Proctor-Williams Institute, Utica, N.Y., and the Kemper Museum, Kansas City. He is a Contributing Editor to Art in America Magazine and his writing has also appeared in Bomb Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail. He has received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the New York State Council on the Arts, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Nancy Graves Foundation Fellowship. He holds an MFA from the University of California Santa Barbara. He is an Associate Professor in Painting; Department Graduate Director, has held teaching positions at Bard College and at the School of Visual Arts, New York City. He recently served as the Jules Guerin/ John Armstrong Chaloner Rome Prize Fellow in Visual Arts at the American Academy.