Highly accomplished artist and longtime New Paltz resident Norman Turner passed away in March 2015 at the age of 75: a great loss to the community that he depicted with such a restless and vigorous eye over many years. A memorial exhibition of Turner’s paintings and drawings will open with a reception at the Unison Arts & Learning Center on February 14 and run through March 27.
A true polymath whose creative interests knew no boundaries, the Iowa-born Turner started his education studying music composition at the University of Colorado, then went on to study the art of fiction under Vance Bourjaily, Donald Justice and Philip Roth at the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop. He got hooked on visual art when he started taking sculpture classes with Humbert Albrezio and learned bronze casting.
Moving to New York City in 1963, Turner soon became one of the founding students of the New York Studio School, where he studied drawing with Mercedes Matter, painting with Charles Cajori and Esteban Vicente and sculpture with George Spaventa. He went on to become a member of the faculty there off and on over the years, alternating with teaching stints at Queens College of CUNY, the Artists for Environment Foundation and SUNY Purchase, but didn’t get around to finishing his own BA in Painting until 1979, through Empire State College.
Turner also put his top-shelf writing training to work many times over the years; links to a selection of his essays on his own work and that of other artists can be found on his website at www.normanturner.net. Cézanne, with his “subjective curvature” of perspective and his musiclike “color modulation,” is a favorite subject and one of Turner’s more obvious influences, although New York Times art critic John Caldwell once described his paintings as “electrified Van Gogh.”
“His sense of the mark is very important to him,” says Stuart Bigley of Turner’s signature geometric brushstroke technique. “I’d know his work anywhere…. He was very much into the geometry of all the things he looked at.” Along with other members of Unison’s Gallery Committee, Bigley has been working with the artist’s widow, Joan Turner, to curate the upcoming exhibition.
“This will be the second show we’ve had of his,” Bigley relates, the previous solo exhibition having been hosted by Unison in 2008. It was only about a month before the painter’s death that Bigley phoned him, unaware that Turner was already seriously ill, to suggest that it was about time for another one. “He said, ‘Stuart, I’m about to go into hospice next week.’ I was totally taken off-guard.” Bigley and his wife Helene raised the subject again with Joan while sitting shiva for Norman, and a few months later, the widow let the Bigleys know that she was ready to help Unison mount a retrospective exhibition.
Local residents will recognize many familiar scenes given boisterous new life in Turner’s work, including many views of the Shawangunk cliffs rendered in vivid color combinations that often seem counterintuitive for landscape painting. Though there are elements of Impressionism in his work, these are no soft-focus visions or Hudson River School dreamscapes. “Forming and reforming: This is what engages the eye of the viewer confronting a Norman Turner painting,” wrote author/critic Martica Sawin in a catalogue accompanying a 2008 solo show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. “It is difficult to stop looking at one of these vibrant landscapes because they resist settling into a stable image seen from a fixed viewpoint, even though all the ingredients — rocks, trees, a distant barn, clouds — are there. One’s gaze is held by the effort to resolve all the activity of color and line into a coherent whole, while the image verges on fragmenting into its components.”
“I know these pictures disconcert, and I know why. They are landscape paintings done on the spot, from observation, in the plein-air tradition; but they describe the dynamics of visual perception in ways related to Analytical Cubism, Giacometti, Pollock and de Kooning. And they occupy radical shapes that slant and are bitten into, giving unusual form to the formless, the visual field. It’s all a jostle to the eye. A feeling of conflict, even of disquiet, is engendered,” wrote Turner in one of his essays. In another he explained the way of seeing behind his innovative approach to color: “I’m saying that the colors of nature are prodigious in their variety, that they are limitless in their mutation, that they saunter at the edge of perception…and that they stimulate and frustrate those who care to approach them with an inquisitive mind and sharpened powers of discrimination, a painter’s materials at hand. They resist being sorted into bandwidths of the spectrum and cannot be located in a tube of paint.”
His preference for working en plein air in locations sometimes difficult to access presented Turner with constant logistical challenges. “My four-by-five-foot canvas, mounted to a sheet of thin plywood, would make a usable sail for a small boat,” he wrote of an outing to a Shawangunk clifftop on a windy day. He compared his trials and tribulations to scenes from a Buster Keaton movie: standing at his easel with a precipitous dropoff just behind him or with his feet in a streambed, uncomfortable in stiff hiking boots, waving off swarms of hovering insects or watching flocks of migrating birds adorn work-in-progress with their droppings. “But it is the very intractability of the widespread Earth, its gnarliness, its reluctance to yield itself to art, that gives to one’s efforts qualities no other creative activity can aim for or own,” he concluded.
The exhibition at Unison will consist of six to ten paintings and six to eight smaller drawings under glass on the lower walls of the gallery, according to Bigley. “His work is so strong colorwise and imagewise that you don’t want to overwhelm the room,” he says. “The paintings are quite large…. The show will focus on his shaped canvases.” What appear to be non-rectangular conglomerations of smaller paintings cobbled together are in fact direct results of Turner’s painting method: “He would start painting, and in the process would figure out the shape of the final canvas,” Bigley explains. “He would then cut a piece of plywood into the shape of what the final canvass would be and turn it into a stretcher…. It’s an interesting way of working.”
The opening reception will take place at Unison, located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, February 14, and the general public is invited. The exhibition may be viewed between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday until March 27. “I think it’s going to be a very beautiful show. I’m very pleased that Joan agreed to do it,” says Bigley. “It’s fitting tribute to Norman. He was a nice man.”