New York

Ann Norton

The Clocktower

Ann Norton’s recent show consisted of six large vertical wood sculptures, 41 watercolor drawings and some documentary photographs of this sculptor’s major efforts—a cluster of big brick abstract “monuments” erected in her backyard in West Palm Beach. Norton showed and was known in New York forty years ago, and to a certain extent some of the interest in this show was in wondering what she is up to now. But if this is the work of a practically unknown older artist, and one working in a definitively provincial situation, it is nevertheless of considerable interest.

It testifies, for one thing, to the enduring pertinence of certain Brancusian insights into the intrinsically sculptural properties of “dressed” but unadulterated timbers, a concern that still marks contemporary sculpture (Di Suvero, Andre, Grosvenor). Norton’s wood sculptures are more worked—actually even carved—than that might suggest (some with blocky progressions and recessions that lend them a dated cast, a la Wotruba). The more commanding pieces are the most monolithic ones (if that term can properly apply to wood), where a single trunk like vertical timber keeps more or less the same sectional profile throughout its height. The implication of formal extrusion that results seems attuned to the fibrous nature of wood and to its tensility. Large areas of the surface are carved over lightly in chisel swipes that have something of the character of “touches” or brushstrokes, forming as they do a kind of shinglelike textural layer of surface inflections dependent on the build-up of many separate, unitary handmade kinetic swipes.

Norton’s watercolors look a lot like Surrealist frottage. So much so that one can easily imagine their being “rubbed” from some of the very sculptures exhibited. Frankly, that in itself is not very appealing, in the sense that doing an exercise in frottage is by now no more daring than making a brass-rubbing in some English church. Actually, these watercolors were not made that way, but they look as though they were; and even if they weren’t rubbed they might equally look as though they had been blotted on while wet, like Surrealist decalcomania. Norton’s watercolors can be luminous (and very lovely), but they are not her most ambitious contribution.

In fact, if Ann Norton hadn’t started building 20-foot high abstract sculptures out of brick in 1970, we probably wouldn’t have had even this occasion to inquire into the rest of her production. Four of these “Monument” works—each of which takes about a year to do—are finished, and another is nearing completion. Judging by some of the artist’s more vapidly pseudo-epigrammatic remarks on her art (“Brick blends with this land. And nature has always been my inspiration.”), one might be prepared to see these works as bourgeois-“kooky,” in a spirit of belated barefoot bohemianism—as, perhaps, a very accomplished form of hobby or retirement art and, as such, more tasteful, safer and less maniacal, and also less convincing, than the works of a (lower-class) Simon Rodia.

Here Norton’s own provincialistic affectation of naïveté threatens to obscure the sophistication of her own work. For what is interesting in the “Monuments” is not the sentimentalism that we can pile onto the obvious charm of brick—that sort of architectural comfiness—but, on the contrary, certain much more substantial historical affinities with brick in the history of architecture. In other words, what we have here is, as art, hardly a matter of the tiresomely anti-intellectual neoprimitivism of only a few years ago in sculpture. On the contrary, it is about sophistication.

Brick workers were among the first craftsmen to settle in Jamestown, whereas the New Englanders tended instead to carry over with them a familiarity and experience with wood construction. This has to do as much with the different building traditions of the different parts of England, from which these settlers tended to come, as with the different resources and conditions of the areas in which they settled. In any event, St. Luke’s (or Newport Parish) Church (alias Old Brick Church), in Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia, of 1682 (some say 1632) is, for instance, a well-known example of this Anglo-Southern brickwork. Such architecture carries over into provincial circumstances a tradition of brickwork as high craft associated widely with the reputation of Sir Christopher Wren. We come pretty close to Wrennish brickwork in Norton’s 1974 Mounment, where, especially, the circular hole (oculus) that fits right into the half-round bottom of a central vertical recession can be read as the inversion of a motif prominent, for one, on the (also brick) tower of Wren’s very famous St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, London (1670–84). In terms of diffused Wrennishness, however, the secular, domestic emphasis of Norton’s structures and, indeed, even their stylish eccentricity, find parallels in the house built by the Wren follower (playwright and dude) Sir John Vanbrugh: Vanbrugh’s Castle, at Greenwich, built around 1717, with nifty attached pseudo-medieval, variously round and angular, towers, all in brick.

This architectural/craft tradition is of more than incidental importance for a Southern artist of Norton’s generation working on an architectural scale in brick. The restoration, by the Rockefellers, of Williamburg, Va., begun in 1931 and basically complete in 1933, would have been known to Norton in her late ’teens. The patriotic historicism of that project, in turn, fed right into the expansion, modernization and democratization of gentry Palladianism in W. P. A. architecture under Franklin D. Roosevelt—whose own house at Hyde Park was built in this style, with the preliminary designs by Roosevelt himself—and of many of the brick buildings built by the London County Council in England as well (see also my comments in Art in America, March–April 1977, pp. 55, 57, 59).

Ann Norton may well have articulated much more than she might seem to have intended by the evidence. Even her own offhandedness about what she makes may intensify the pertinence of her intuitive insights now. For Norton’s work relates at least as significantly to current quasi-architectural sculpture—much of it by (younger) women—as it does to early Southern architectural history. The “Monuments” are works of art for which we would hardly have been prepared without the sculptures of Alice Aycock or Mary Miss. By virtue of that, Ann Norton becomes our contemporary.

Joseph Masheck