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Artists Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis

American Painter

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: July 23, 1909 - Harlem, New York

Died: August 27, 1979 - Harlem, New York

Quotes

"...one of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any [social] change."
Norman Lewis
"When I am at work, I usually remove my state of mind from the Negro environment I live in. I paint what's inside, and like to think of it as a very personal, very individual environment. Being Negro, of course, is part of what I feel, but in expressing all of what I am artistically I find myself in a visionary world, to which 125th Street [Harlem] would prove limited and less than universal by comparison."
Norman Lewis
"...political and social aspects should not be the primary concern, aesthetic ideas should have preference."
Norman Lewis
"I have been concerned not only with my own creative and technical development but with the limitations which come under the names 'African Idiom,' 'Negro Idiom,' or 'Social Painting.'"
Norman Lewis
"I wanted to be above criticism, so that my work didn't have to be discussed in terms of the fact that I'm black."
Norman Lewis
"I used to paint Negroes being dispossessed; discrimination, and slowly I became aware of the fact that this didn't move anybody, it didn't make things better."
Norman Lewis

"...the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."

Synopsis

Norman Lewis, a leading African-American painter, was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, who also used representational strategies to focus on black urban life and his community's struggles. Lewis's work is characterized by the duality of abstraction and representation, using both geometric and natural forms, in the depiction of both the city and natural world, and expressing both righteous anger and joyous celebration. His paintings are singled out for their linear, calligraphic lines, along with his bright, expressive palette and atmospheric effects. Unlike other Abstract Expressionists, his technique and content never wholly gave over to the subjective. Often overlooked in art history studies, there has been a renaissance of interest in Lewis's oeuvre since the 1990s.

Key Ideas

Lewis ceased painting Social Realist works in the early 1940s because he found the style was not effective to counter racism. He saw abstraction as a strategy to distance himself from racial artistic language, as well as the stereotypes of his time. Abstraction proved an important means to both artistic freedom and personal discovery.
One marker of Lewis's work is his frequent use of the color black, which appears to predate that of his friend and fellow artist Ad Reinhardt. However, for an artist who was concerned with race and racism in America, painting during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, it's hard not to see social commentary in his choice of palette.
Lewis garnered important gallery representation and was involved with several key events of the Abstract Expressionist movement, this despite the racism of the art world and American segregation of the 1940s and 1950s.

Most Important Art

Migrating Birds (1953)
In 1955, Norman Lewis became the first African-American artist to receive the Carnegie International Award for this celebrated painting. The critic for the New York Herald-Tribune proclaimed Lewis's work "one of the most significant events of the 1955 art year." This work demonstrates Lewis's continued commitment to the natural world, using representation as the starting point for abstraction. Within the golden yellows which cover the canvas completely, Lewis creates a mass of movement and energy with his application of sharp, white strokes of paint which conjures up images of birds in flight. Lewis's sense of duality, the abstract and the representational, are in complete balance in this prized painting. The sensation is that of multitudes of birds taking flight in the blazing sun and sky.
Oil on canvas - Carnegie Institutue
More Art Works


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Biography

Childhood

Norman Lewis was born in Harlem, which at the time of his birth was a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood, with few African American families, an imbalance which made him keenly aware of racial inequality at a very young age. Lewis recognized that he wanted to be an artist when just nine years old. In high school, he studied drawing and commercial design. At age 20, Lewis was employed as a seaman on a freighter and spent several years traveling about South America and the Caribbean. Upon leaving this position, he returned home to New York where he began to work, study, and, later, exhibit as an artist.

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Early Training

Norman Lewis Early Photograph

In the early 1930s, inspired by the teachings of philosopher Alain Locke and his New Negro Movement, Lewis was excited by African art, which he arduously studied in several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art during the 1935 exhibition African Sculpture. The young artist met the sculptor Augusta Savage who was one of the most important African-American art educators, as well as a renowned artist. From 1933 to 1935, Lewis enrolled in her Savage School of Arts and Crafts based in Harlem, which was a center for black artists at the time. Lewis helped to organize the Harlem Artists Guild (1935-41), an organization that fostered opportunities for African-American artists, and focused on political and social concerns of the artists and the greater black community. In addition to tutelage by Savage, Lewis was a student at Columbia University. He also was a member of the multi-racial, radical Artists' Union and participated in the communist-led John Reed Club. Lewis taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center, where a young Jacob Lawrence studied, and, in 1936, he began working for the WPA/Federal Arts Projects teaching art classes.

After the WPA/FAP ended in 1943, the artist went on to teach at the George Washington Carver School, alongside notable African American artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. At this point in his development, Lewis was simultaneously influenced by African sculpture, painted as a Social Realist, and focused on the black community's struggles.

Mature Period

In the mid-1940s, Lewis began to experiment with pure abstraction, and became active in the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. New York's Willard Gallery, "which was considered one of the most prestigious commercial venues for abstract expressionism," represented Lewis and hosted his first solo exhibition in 1949. He went on to have nine solo shows within ten years at the Gallery, which managed his career until 1964. The works he exhibited highlighted his signature calligraphic line, suggestive of figural groups engaged in frenetic movement and energy. Concurrently, he taught high school alongside Reinhardt who became a close friend and ally. The artist also was part of and exhibited with the American Abstract Artists, which the painter Vaclav Vytacil introduced him to and where Reinhardt was also a member. Reinhardt included Lewis in his famous satirical drawing How to Look at Modern Art (1946). Although involved in all these activities, Lewis was never able to make a living on his art sales alone, and instead supported himself, his wife, and his daughter through teaching.

In 1950, Lewis was the sole African-American participant in the famous, closed-door symposium at Studio 35 set to defining abstract art. The following year, MoMA included Lewis's work in the influential exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. While a member of this coveted inner circle of leading abstract artists, because of his race Lewis was paradoxically an outsider. A friend later recalled: "They [the abstract expressionists] liked Norman; they were glad he was there. But it was a strange attitude: What was he doing there? He should be painting lynchings." During this time, Lewis's life and art were somewhat divided, perhaps contradictorily, as he was simultaneously part of the elite abstract art world, while also deeply connected to the arts and people of Harlem. The painter was also a specially invited exhibitor in a show organized by the Art Institute of Chicago to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale of 1956.

In 1963, Lewis was a founding member of SPIRAL, a group of black artists committed to assist the ongoing Civil Rights Movement through art. SPIRAL brought a wide array of aesthetic sensibilities to the table, always questioning the relationship of art and race to the Freedom Struggle. From 1965 to 1971, he taught for HARYOUT-ACT, inc. (Harlem Youth in Action), an anti-poverty program designed to retain youth in school. In 1967, Lewis was one of numerous artists who picketed the Metropolitan Museum of Art's infamous exhibition "Harlem on My Mind," which was organized without input from the black community, treated art by African Americans in anthropological terms rather than aesthetically, and insulted many people. In 1969, along with artist Romare Bearden, he helped found the gallery Cinque for African American artists; Cinque was the slave name of the man stolen from Sierra Leone who led a rebellion against the slave ship Amistad. In the famous case, the Supreme Court in 1840 decided that Cinque and the other slaves had been illegally captured, and they were repatriated back to West Africa. The gallery highlighted the work of African-American and African art and artists, was dedicated to fostering the careers of black artists, and was part of the Black Arts Movement.

Late Period

In the later part of his life, Lewis primarily focused on painting the natural world, especially seascapes which enabled him to express his profound love of the ocean. He also was a teacher at the Arts Students League. Lewis continued to move within black artists' circles; he outlived many of his Abstract Expressionist friends. In the early 1970s, he was awarded an NEA grant, a Mark Rothko Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship - all prestigious awards to support his painting. Still, he was only included in a smattering of exhibitions. It was not until 1976 that the artist was honored with his first retrospective. Lewis died unexpectedly in New York City in 1979. In the past three decades, there has been a flowering of new scholarship on Lewis and a proliferation of both group and solo exhibitions.

Legacy

Lewis's oeuvre demonstrates the ability to simultaneously paint abstractly without renouncing the representational and narrative. Despite the strength of his life's work, Lewis - along with other artists of color and women artists - was excluded from the major studies on Abstract Expressionism such as Irving Sandler's The Triumph of American Painting (1976). Acknowledging the beauty and originality of his work, we can use Lewis as an example to question the racial strictures of art institutions and the artistic canon, recognizing that these bodies furthered the racist prejudices of their time. Lewis was never forgotten within the African-American art community, and he influenced the second generation of black abstractionists. More attention is coming due to Lewis: in the fall of 2015, two exhibitions, one a joint showing of his art alongside that of Lee Krasner, will be presented at New York's Jewish Museum, and the other, a large, solo exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, in Philadelphia, will go on view. In this regard, we are just beginning to feel the full magnitude of Lewis's legacy and the impact he has and will continue to have on contemporary artists.


Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Norman Lewis
Interactive chart with Norman Lewis's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Augusta Savage
Raphael Soyer

Friends

Ad Reinhardt
Robert Motherwell
Romare Bearden

Movements

Social Realism
Abstract Expressionism
Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis
Years Worked: 1931 - 1979

Artists

Herbert Gentry
Charles White
Elizabeth Catlett

Friends

Romare Bearden
Ad Reinhardt
Charles Alston

Movements

Abstract Expressionism

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Norman Lewis

Books
Websites
Articles
Audio
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
paintings
Norman Lewis: A Retrospective

From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945-1952

By Norman L. Kleeblatt, Stephen Brown, Lisa Saltzman, Amanda Bagneris

25 Highly Important Paintings by Norman Lewis

By Norman Lewis

Beauford Delaney & Norman Lewis: Abstractionist Visions

By Bill Hodges Gallery

The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters

By Hilarie M. Sheets
ARTnews
June 4, 2014

The Color Black: On the Painter's Canvas and in the World

By William Zimmer
The New York Times
May 30, 1999

Shades of Meaning From a Black Modernist

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
April 17, 1998

A Forgotten Voice From an Age of Exploration

By Barry Schwabsky
The New York Times
February 9, 1997

Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.
ArtStory: Social Realism
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt was an American abstract artist whose monochromatic canvases show side-by-side rectangles painted in subtle variations of the same color. Very much part of the New York scene in the 1940s, he nonetheless scorned the label and gestural ethos of Abstract Expressionism.
ArtStory: Ad Reinhardt
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence was a twentieth-century African-American painter and self-described "dynamic cubist." Lawrence's figurative paintings often depicted slices of African-American life and hardship.
Jacob Lawrence
Charles White
Charles White
Charles White
Charles White was an American painter, draftsman, and printmaker, whose work is commonly associated with the Social Realist movement. Widely regarded for his WPA-era murals, White is best known for his black-and-white and sepia-toned works, which incorporate symbolic motifs to convey social and political issues relevant to the African-American experience.
Charles White
Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett was a prominent sculptor, whose figurative work explores social and political issues related to the African-American experience and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Working largely in clay, wood, and stone, she also created woodcuts and linocuts in a similar Social Realist style.
Elizabeth Catlett
Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden was a twentieth-century African-American painter and collagist, whose work was heavily influenced by the Mexican muralists, Cubism, and the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden's work truly came of age during the American Civil Rights movement, when he introduced a new form of socially-conscious collage, comprised of clippings from glossy magazines.
ArtStory: Romare Bearden
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner was an American abstract painter and a prominent first-generation Abstract Expressionist. A student of Hans Hofmann's, and a pioneer in the all-over technique of painting that later influenced Color Field artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
ArtStory: Lee Krasner
Augusta Savage
Augusta Savage
Augusta Savage
Augusta Savage was a sculptor, educator, activist, and patron of the arts, who played a significant role during the Harlem Renaissance. Best known for her expressionistic, figurative sculptures made out of bronze, plaster, and clay, she contributed to the evolution of modern art through her powerful statues and her Savage School of Arts and Crafts, which provided an important platform for African American artists.
Augusta Savage
Raphael Soyer
Raphael Soyer
Raphael Soyer
Raphael Soyer was a Russian-born American painter, draftsman, printmaker, and writer, whose work is commonly associated with Social Realism. Through impressionistic works characterized by bright colors and visible brushstrokes, Soyer focused on contemporary scenes of New York's streets, subways, salons, and artists' studios.
Raphael Soyer
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
ArtStory: Robert Motherwell
Herbert Gentry
Herbert Gentry
Herbert Gentry
Herbert Gentry was an African-American painter, typically associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionism. More than that, Gentry's work combined a variety of influences including African symbolism, French Surrealism and Color-field Painting. Spending much of his life as an expatriate in Europe, Gentry is credited with bringing the imagery and culture of his native Harlem neighborhood to the mid-century Paris art scene.
Herbert Gentry
Charles Alston
Charles Alston
Charles Alston
Charles Henry 'Spinky' Alston was an American artist, best known for his WPA murals, Social Realist paintings, and portraits. A significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Alston was an active member and collaborator in Harlem's early-twentieth-century artistic community, working with important creative initiatives such as the 306 Group, the Harlem Art Workshop, and the Harlem Artists Guild.
Charles Alston