special tribute
Norris Embry

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

on the occasion of the one-man exhibition
The Baltimore Museum of Art
December 16, 1975 - January

When I first saw Norris Embry's art in the 1950's, it was the quality of his line in this early work that impressed me most. Usually black, brown or sepia, it traced and brought to life men, women, and things in sharp, electrifying outline.

Except for a tendency to move from representational to abstractly expressive forms and back again, these graphically predicated works seemed to extend the spirit of Degas and of Egon Schiele into the American postwar era. Only subsequently did I become aware of Embry's emotive colors with which he filled mostly smallish surfaces of single sheets in numerous notebooks.

In these too, figurative subject matter alternated with abstracted compositions or with intermediary stages in which the recognizable persists as a proposal to be affirmed or rejected by the viewer at will.

Embry's disregard of arbitrary categories and his capability to deal with the objective and the non-objective mode on even and integrated terms marked him, even then, as an artist of courage and independence; for, it should be remembered that the sixties, in which Embry pursued these creative ends, had more than its share of dogmatism that readily excommunicated deviation from a rather rigidly defined stylistic fashion.

What Embry pursued, then, and what has led him to his current state, is an updated, existential expressionism in which a charged line and intensive color - whether clear or opaque - become the vehicle for overt, hidden or dissolved themes.

His notebooks which remain the artist's most concentrated testimony, are an obsessive record of irrepressible expressiveness. It is through these semiautomatic depositions that we learn of Embry's need for the constant movement of his painter's hand, as if he feared that even a moment's pause would block its access to that place within him from whence flows a steady supply of forms and images.

That flow, caught and transformed into graphic equivalents at its point of inception and in the rawest possible stage, in turn appears to obey commands issued from some distant headquarters. Embry, therefore, conforms to the romantic concept of the artist as an almost involuntary medium through which awareness originating outside of him is converted, sub- or semi-consciously, into visual notations that ultimately remain as an art trace essentially unrelated to its visionary origins.

Take a few examples from the present exhibition, such as an untitled work on paper executed in 1965 (Cat. no. 1) in the mixed and well-nigh indeterminable media so characteristic of Embry 's work. The subject is a still life of flowers whose multicoloured blossoms reach out from a black vase to come alive against a grey background richly spiked with pastel hues.

It is obvious that Embry is nourished here form an historic still life tradition which however must be held at bay so as not to impose itself unduly upon the contemporary work. The broken planes and the explosive fragmentation of the flowerpiece stress its modern origins and sensibilities. To remove any lingering doubts, a small collage in the painting's upper left corner pays homage to the cubist investors of that twentieth century device.

Four years later, in another untitled work that gives the impression of an enlarged notebook page (Cat. no. 13), Embry's colors emerge at top intensity. Somewhat like Klee, whom Embry admires, the artist borders his work within an uneven rectangle so that another plane may be superimposed. Faces shown frontally or in side view, as well as abstracted signs and symbols, swim in the background. They are brought closer to the surface or removed further into the picture space thereby creating a vibrant field of tension in which the artist's hand operates with consummate sureness.

Embry's notebook style, very often applied to works on paper in general, depends upon stark and potent images - whether legibly representative or not - crowded with maximum intensity upon a small, well defined space. Occasionally, he deploys color, mono- or bi-chromatic, in typical instances in helter-skelter fashion, allowing pastel, watercolour, and sometimes oil to combine into a dense, waxy surface.

Sometimes such mixtures are further enriched through colored scraps glued on top of it and so closely integrated with the gestural imagery of the work as to remain almost unnoticed; then again Embry may rely collage for prominent contrast with the painted surface and achieve complementary effects of great animation and vibrancy.

The notebook page, as already pointed out, may be reinforced by a border within which the pictorial action is confined as on a stage. Random writings, frequently corrected, crossed out, underlined, or provided with other marks of special emphasis, are among other enlivening features in Embry's remarkably direct transference of his state of mind and emotion upon the picture surface. A true sense of order and radiance then may ensue from the opposite appearance of uninhibited, even chaotic expressiveness.

Only rarely, in the last decade, does Embry return to the clear, linear outlines of his youth and to the correspondingly restrained coloristic treatment. The result of such occasional departures is a kind of tropical pop as in two works included in this exhibition (Cat. no. 11 and 20). The first of these features beauties and a glamour boy; the second, two topless dames under a tree and blue sky. Their brightly painted lips and glaring white teeth give this genre a grotesquely vulgar flavour redeemed only through the impeccability of the artist's formal treatment.

Embry's expressionist heritage is often overt though never derivative in his mature phases. Facing Doom (Cat. no. 25), completed in 1974, returns to many fundamental attributes of German Expressionism. As in this now historic movement, the portrait subject is rarely far removed from the self-image of the artist that seems to add itself to the rendition of the sitter.

The attenuations in this portrait (with one shoulder raised to the point of dislocation) recall Egon Schiele's penchant for similar subjects and also stress the unity between figure and field, first introduced in the great self-portraits of Munch and Kokoschka. With a daring and freedom of execution that bespeaks our modern, postwar era, Embry's current expressionism surrounds and engulfs the sitter's pensive, inward-looking features in transparent, over-lapping layers of emphatic color.

Norris Embry's Salome of 1975 (Cat no. 50) also draws from expressionist traditions - Nolde is in this instance - while conceiving of content and form I current terms. Like the previously described portrait, the biblical subject is painted on canvas board in dimensions exceeding those of most of his earlier works.

Both the enlarged scale and the use of different support re not without significance in the development of an artist whose occasional efforts to come to terms with easel painting have not been very successful. In part, this demonstrated inhibition seems to stem from Embry's working method which became obsessive long ago. His application of colors to paper with crayon remnants and small brushes takes place at full horizontality since he works on a desk from above, at day or night time, in natural or artificial light.

The canvas board that was virtually smuggled into his studio by observant friends, while larger than the average paper surface, still permits the same procedure and thereby allows the artist to continue his established habits and idiosyncrasies. Whether as a result of such experimentation or because Embry, again upon entreaty by friends, finally abandoned his overcrowded, all-purpose space in Baltimore for something resembling a studio, it is obvious that he has gained new amplitude in his recent work.

His figurations have lost some of their tenseness, which until recently kept his charged components under unrelenting pressure, and a sense of ease is indicated by the white spaces that now surround the still packed colored areas.

It would not be surprising if a certain relaxation were at last in sight. For Embry's life has fitted the expressionistic scenario as much as has his art. Building up intenseness upon intenseness, he was for decades subject at time to violent and tragic ruptures.

The pervasive NO of his monogrammatic signature and the double and triple x-ing that is so frequent a cancelling sign throughout his creative phases are but the most conspicuous graphic reminders of such vulnerabilities. Happily for Embry and for the growing number of his admirers, painting for him has always pointed the way toward redemption and, bravely, he took that indicated path.

As his most recent work in this ten years' survey seems to foretell, there is much within Norris Embry that he still has not released and much, therefore, that should still come to us in future.

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Circa: 1975