About us
Artists Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis Photo

Norman Lewis

American Painter

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: July 23, 1909 - Harlem, New York

Died: August 27, 1979 - Harlem, New York

Norman Lewis Timeline

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."

Norman Lewis Signature

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.

Biography

Norman Lewis Photo

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Norman Lewis Biography Continues

Important Art by Norman Lewis

The below artworks are the most important by Norman Lewis - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Yellow Hat (1936)
Artwork Images

The Yellow Hat (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: Painted early in his career while influenced by Locke's New Negro Movement, this work's subject is a seated, isolated African-American woman captured in thought. The Yellow Hat shows Lewis's style in transition from Social Realism to abstraction. Here, the form is simplified and color and design are emphasized. Lewis subdivides the figure and ground into planar shapes of distinct colors; the yellow hat which shields the woman's face is the brightest note of color. Clearly, the artist is emulating early European modernism and the School of Paris, using these influences as a lens through which to approach Harlemites. Lewis balances this work between realism and modernism in order to both depict the black community and demonstrate his growing commitment to the art of the new. The black figure with her distinct angularity reminds us that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque also looked to African statuary as the foundation for their own work.

Oil on canvas - The Norman Lewis Collection

The Tenement (1948)
Artwork Images

The Tenement (1948)

Artwork description & Analysis: Throughout his career, the artist worked extensively with black, which intriqued him for both its formal properities and social implications. However, Lewis's Black Paintings (1946-77) were rarely given over entirely to the color black, unlike Reinhardt's later black canvases of the 1950s. Instead, black serves as sharp contrast to the bold colors Lewis has painted. Here, bright shapes are arranged in a vertical format. Once the title is known, the colored shapes reveal themselves to be windows, and the outlines of buildings become recognizable. Lewis's explorations of black enabled him to conjure images of nightime, the artist's preferred time of day. According to Joan Murray Weissman who lived with Lewis from 1946 to 1952: ''He really loved night: he loved going out at night, and he loved walking at night, and he loved the sky with stars in it, and he loved lights. He was a night kind of guy.''

Oil on canvas

Green Mist (1948)
Artwork Images

Green Mist (1948)

Artwork description & Analysis: Lewis often worked in a tall, vertical format applying bright colors along with a calligraphic black line. Here, the softness of the colors might lead one to conclude that Lewis was working with an airbrush. Instead, Lewis obtained this atmospheric glow through a technique he both devised and mastered of smudging pigment back and forth into the canvas. Through his manipulation of pigments and unique smudge effect, Lewis punctures the flatness of the picture plane so that the two-dimensional surface recedes. This opens up a figure and ground relationship between the green mist and the totem-like figures composed of lines. In so doing, the vibrancy of the energy and mass within the center of the painting is magnified.

Oil on canvas - Wadsworth Athenaeum

More Norman Lewis Artwork and Analysis:



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

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.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Augusta SavageAugusta Savage
Raphael SoyerRaphael Soyer

Personal Contacts

Ad ReinhardtAd Reinhardt
Robert MotherwellRobert Motherwell
Romare BeardenRomare Bearden

Movements

Social RealismSocial Realism
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

Influences on Artist
Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis
Years Worked: 1931 - 1979
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Herbert GentryHerbert Gentry
Charles WhiteCharles White
Elizabeth CatlettElizabeth Catlett

Personal Contacts

Romare BeardenRomare Bearden
Ad ReinhardtAd Reinhardt
Charles AlstonCharles Alston

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

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 of 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 Recomended resource

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

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 Recomended resource

By Barry Schwabsky
The New York Times
February 9, 1997

More Interesting Articles about Norman Lewis
If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]

Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: