Norman Carton was an American artist and educator best known for abstract expressionist painting. He was born in Imperial Russia and moved to the United States in 1922 where he spent most of his adult life.
A classically trained portrait landscape artist, Carton worked as a drafter, muralist, theater set designer, fabric designer, artist and spent most of his adult life as an art educator. Carton was part of many solo and group exhibitions throughout his lifetime and continues to be shown in present-day exhibitions. His work is part of numerous museums and private collections throughout the world.
Norman Carton was born in the Dnieper Ukraine territory of the Russian Empire in 1908. Escaping the turbulence of civil war massacres, he settled in Philadelphia in 1922 after years of constant flight.
While attending the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, Carton worked as a newspaper artist for the Philadelphia Record from 1928 to 1930 in the company of other illustrator/artists who had founded the Ashcan School, the beginnings of modern American art. From 1930 to 1935, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Henry McCarter, who was a pupil of Toulouse-Lautrec, Puvis de Chavanne, and Thomas Eakins. Arthur Carles, especially with his sense of color, and the architect John Harbison also provided tutelage and inspiration. Following his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Carton studied at the Barnes Foundation from 1935 to 1936 where he was influenced by an intellectual climate led by visiting lecturers John Dewey and Bertrand Russell as well as daily access to Albert C. Barnes and his art collection.
Carton was awarded the Cresson Traveling Scholarship in 1934 which allowed him to travel through Europe and study in Paris. There he expanded his artistic horizons with influences stemming from Matisse, Picasso, Soutine, and Kandinsky. While at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Carton was also awarded the Toppan Prize for figure painting as well as the Thouron Composition Prize. He received numerous commissions as a portrait artist, social realist, sculptor, and theatrical stage designer as well as academic scholarships. During this time, Carton worked as a scenery designer at Sparks Scenic Studios, a drafter at the Philadelphia Enameling Works, and a fine art lithographer.
Norman Carton was employed as a muralist and easel artist from 1939 to 1942, working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project and collaborating with architect George Howe. Carton’s WPA commissions during this time included murals at the Helen Fleischer Vocational School for Girls in Philadelphia, the Officers’ Club at Camp Meade Army Base in Maryland, and in the city of Hidalgo, Mexico. During World War II, he worked for Cramp Shipbuilding as a naval structural designer and draftsman. It was at this time that Carton began creating non-objective sculptures with metal.
After the war, Carton co-founded a fabric design plant in Philadelphia. He produced hand-printed fabrics for interiors and fashion that were featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. Original fabric designs were commissioned by notable clients including Lord & Taylor, Gimbels, and Nina Ricci. Some of these designs are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Carton traded his partnership in the fabric design company in 1949 to focus full-time on painting.
Carton had his first solo exhibition in 1949 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. This show was followed closely by solo exhibitions at the Laurel Gallery (New York City) and Dubin Gallery (Philadelphia). At this time, his exhibited work was Abstract Impressionist. In addition to painting, he taught classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was the Founder and first President of the Philadelphia chapter of Artist’s Equity Association.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the organization of the National Museums of France commissioned Carton to travel to Europe, mainly France, in 1950 for a color photography study of continental masterpieces. He was granted access to study the restoration of the Mona Lisa and was one of the very few to be given permission to remove the painting from its frame.
In 1952, he had solo exhibitions at the Sorbonne, Galerie d’Art, and Gallery Rene Breteau and was part of many group shows in Paris salons including Les Surindependants, Salon d’Automne, and Realities Nouvelles. Here for the first time, Carton showed his non-objective paintings. He also exhibited at the Musee d’Art Juif where he won the Prix d’Art.
During his stay in Paris, the Cercle Paul Valery twice sponsored Carton to present lectures at the Sorbonne. He conducted seminars at the Louvre for the Cercle Esthetique Internationale and taught classes in and directed stage and costume design for the Theatre de Recherche at the Paris Opera.
When Carton returned to the United States in 1953, he settled in New York City where he worked in the company of the leading artists of the day with whom he appeared in a number of group shows including the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1955-1956 “Exhibit of Contemporary American Painting.” This exhibition included such notable artists as Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, James Brooks, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Georgia O'Keeffe, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert De Niro Sr., and many others. The Whitney subsequently purchased a Carton.
The mid-1950s to the 1970s was a busy time for Carton during which he received a great deal of recognition. He had solo exhibitions one gallery after another (Martha Jackson), Staempfli, Granite and World House, New York City; Tirca Carlis, Provincetown; Gres, Washington D.C.; Dumbarton, Boston; and Joachim, Chicago).
Carton's large canvasses traveled in major collections to such venues as the Smithsonian American Art Museum (was SNCFA) and the RISD Museum of Fine Arts with significant works of artists such as Jim Dine, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, and Jackson Pollock. Other group exhibitions included Whitney, Corcoran, Phillips, Dallas, Dayton, Walker, and Chrysler Museums among others.
In 1962, with the aid of two other artists, he formed the Dewey Gallery, one of the first New York City galleries owned and operated by artists. He presented his work during the opening exhibition.
During his lifetime, Carton was in more than 120 group exhibits and more than 20 solo shows and continued to receive many PAFA fellowship awards. He was popularly and critically regarded as possessing a painterly style of superlative action and a unique knowledge as a colorist, Carton ground his own pigments and painted with a brilliant palette. More recently, he exhibited with Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko among other great Abstract Expressionists as well as Picasso and Matisse.
Norman Carton was also an art educator throughout much of his life. Beginning in 1960, Carton worked on the art faculty at the New School where he would remain until his death. From 1948 to 1949, he taught painting and composition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From 1950 to 1953, he conducted seminars at the Louvre and the Sorbonne while living in Paris. Also while in Paris, Carton taught classes in and directed stage and costume design for the Theatre de Recherche at the Paris Opera. He also gave lectures at the Pratt Institute and the Chrysler Museum of Art as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art. Carton moderated panel discussions between prominent artists and educators and appeared in radio interviews. In 1960 and 1961, he painted at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire as a fellow. Carton also taught for a time at Long Island University.
Norman Carton had two children, sons Jacob and Benedict Carton. He died in New York City in 1980 at the age of 72.