special tribute
Norris Embry

Introduction | Thomas Messer curriculum vitae | Tribute 2006 | Tribute 1982 | Tribute 1975

Tribute by Thomas M. Messer
Director The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

January, 1982

Norris Embry, the persistent no-sayer and deliberate negator has departed from us, not long ago, and we are left to ponder his NO"s and his XX's, those recurring signs of denial, emblematically affixed upon his surfaces by a spirit ultimately affirmative.

For, while it is true that Norris sought death and annihilation it is also evident that life was infinitely precious to him, perhaps because it was so fragile and so vulnerable in his sight.

The contradiction between his need to die and the urge to live provided the mainspring for an art that draws its richness from the espousal of unresolved opposites. We have thus been admiring Norris's drawing since the mid-fifties when the strength and intensity of his line first recommended him to our attention.

In seeming contradiction Norris subsequently broke into an increasingly compelling and free coloristic expression, filling countless sheets and sketchbook pages with crowded and insistent images that appeared to undermine and erode all form and harmony through a visual concert composed in harshly dissonant tonalities.

Only through the passage of time and because of our obsessive need to comprehend has the artist's apparent chaos been returned to its underlying order and only as a result of such a metamorphosis has our initial sense of unease given way to one of deeply felt satisfaction.

Those who have viewed Norris Embry's work during his lifetime were, I believe, unanimously drawn to his expressionistic origins. They rightly sensed in the American's art a certain kinship with the spiritual quality of a Nolde, the uninhibited force of Norris's teacher Kokoschka, and the seemingly formless brut art of Jean Duffet.

Since all creative individuals have roots in the preceding achievements of others, there is no reason to deny such obvious links, the more so because Embry always acknowledged his peers freely and generously. It may, however, be worth pointing out that Norris represented a generation different from these, and that he created within another context so that expressionism, in his hands, meant something else, appearance notwithstanding.

At this moment when a figurative expressionist mode again engages the interest and the attention of a younger generation of painters it may therefore be more appropriate to perceive Norris Embry's legacy as one in which a new sensibility has taken shape long before it became a commonplace.

Tribute overview

Circa: 1979