Step into the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and your attention is likely to be caught by a view of the verdant sculpture garden, the spacious galleries and a broad staircase to the level below. What you might miss is the nearby alcove entrance to a tiny gallery where the unexpected is often on display.
This month through mid-January, this small rotating gallery is home to "Dark Visions: Midcentury Macabre," an intimate exhibition featuring 14 works — lithographs, paintings and assemblage — by Bruce Conner, Edward Kienholz, George Herms, Joseph Cornell, Conner Everts and other 20th-century artists.
According to the museum's website, the exhibition's purpose is to "mine the dark recesses of the mid-20th century and explore the creations made to exorcise the demons that plagued artists."
The inspiration, said Tom Norris, the curatorial associate who organized the exhibition, was one of its smallest objects: "Lust Murder Box No. 2," part of a series of inlaid wooden boxes designed in the 1920s by artist Kurt Schwitters in reaction to the horrendous deeds of a German serial killer.
The seemingly innocuous boxes, reflecting Schwitters' collage work, were crafted by master craftsman Albert Schulze.
"I saw it in the [museum's] vault a while ago," Norris said of the piece, "and it piqued my curiosity, the idea that something as powerful and evil and fraught as 'lust murder' would inspire an artist to create an object that would somehow take on those qualities."
With that in mind, Norris began gathering other objects from the museum's collection that he felt "gravitated toward or orbited around these strong emotions."
To display several of the works, Norris designed a platform that would create "sort of an interior, almost domestic space," he said, in contrast to atmospheric lighting that allows the works "to pop," while corners of the small gallery are lost to shadow.
George Herms is represented by "The Book of Perfection" — rusty and battered ordinary objects: wood, coils of wire, tin cans, a tea kettle, a medicine cabinet.
"It's a cynical way of looking at society and commerce and the production of 'stuff,'" Norris said.
"Lust Murder Box No. 2" shares space with artist Jess' "Assembly Lamp Eight, 1966," an old electric lamp base, its octagonal shade made up of photographs, magazine clippings, and glass lantern slides; and with Kienholz's "The Secret House of Eddie Critch, 1961," featuring decapitated plastic dolls and doll parts behind chicken wire inside a drop-front writing-desk, headless necks rising from fur-lined holes.
On the opposite wall is Bruce Conner's "Homage to Minnie Mouse, 1959," with tattered lace curtains and a sash window whose murky glass invites voyeuristic viewing.
Connor's sinister "Couch," part of the Norton Simon's collection, is currently on display in "Bruce Conner: It's All True," a major retrospective of the artist's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Oct. 2, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it travels next.
Hanging nearby is Connor Everts' lithograph "Now the Act Is Consummated," from his 1963 "Studies in Desperation" series, created in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the intensifying social upheaval of the era.
This series led to Everts' arrest on charges of obscenity. He was acquitted.
Other "Dark Visions' are Claire Falkenstein's "Regal Box," a viscera-like tangle of glass and wire; "Mr. Huff's Teeth in the Articulator," an unnerving lithograph in red and blue by Clayton Pond; Jack Edward Stuck's "Self-Portrait," depicting a silhouetted figure awaiting execution in a gas chamber; and Leon Golub's 1965 lithograph, "Combat," in which violently struggling figures emerge out of slashes of brown and black ink.
Many of the pieces were acquired by the Pasadena Art Museum, the Norton Simon's previous incarnation. An exception is Turkish artist Nese Erdok's disturbing oil painting of an infant, titled "Womb and Tomb," which was purchased by Norton Simon, Norris said.
Visitors may notice that the labeling in the exhibition has been kept to a minimum. This was a deliberate choice, Norris said.
"I wanted the emotional content to sort of ooze from the artworks themselves. You walk into the gallery and feel something unsettling," he said.
Even though most of the works were made several decades ago, he said, "because of their grotesque nature, that feeling is still there."
Events offered in conjunction with "Dark Visions" include guided tours of the exhibition from 1 to 2 p.m. on Sept. 25 and Oct. 30 and a screening of the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Vertigo," at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 28, in the museum's 290-seat theater.
What: Dark Visions exhibit
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.
When: Open noon to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Price: General admission: adults, $12; seniors, $9. Members, students with I.D., and visitors 18 and younger are admitted for free. Free admission for all is offered the first Friday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m.
More info: (626) 449-6840, nortonsimon.org