Summary of Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis, a leading African-American painter, was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, and he 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.
- 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.
Important Art by Norman Lewis
The Yellow Hat
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
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
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
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
Large totemic elements give way to human figures which are shown crowded together. Lewis has again woven together abstract elements with social implications, namely, the inner city and its crowded environment. His use of earthen tones, coupled with his use of descriptive titles, suggest humans as well as concrete surfaces and buildings, which are all blended together. Here, we sense the density of public life and spaces within America's leading black community. While other modernists traveled uptown to Harlem to seek out jazz music and visual inspiration, Lewis was painting his own neighborhood which he depicted as pulsating with life.
Oil on canvas - The Collection of Eric Robertson
Despite Lewis's disavowl of protest paintings and Social Realism, the artist continued to confront social issues throughout his career - although mediated through Abstract Expressionism. Here is a forceful political painting which directly attacks American racism. The abstract, hooded white figures which emerge from the greyish background are members of the hateful Ku Klu Klan, who gather around a bonfire at center. Blue smoke evaporates, or distills the white cloaked figures at top. The uniting of the red, white, and blue belittles the patroitism which the KKK claimed to represent.
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Lewis has divided his all-black background into a shard or triangle at left, and a rectangular band at right. Although non-representational, the white triangular shapes painted within the larger painted area evoke the hooded Ku Klux Klan. Lewis deftly plays with white and black, trying to find space for political and social commentary on the Civil Rights Movement within the language of Abstract Expressionism. The assured, aggressive nature of his brushstrokes drives home the importance of this subject. In addition to being referred to as Lewis's black paintings, works such as this were called his "processional works" because they portray masses of figures in movement which vary from the celebratory to the menacing - such as portrayed here.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Blue and Boogie
In the last years of his life and career, Lewis returned to vibrant and hard edge painting such as above. The repetition of circles suggests the pulsating sounds of music - here, blues, jazz, and bebop - filling the night air.
Oil on canvas - The Studio Museum in Harlem
Biography of Norman Lewis
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.
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 Works Progress Administration of the 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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Norman Lewis
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
Useful Resources on Norman Lewis
- Norman Lewis: A RetrospectiveOur Pick
- From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945-1952Our PickBy Norman L. Kleeblatt, Stephen Brown, Lisa Saltzman, Amanda Bagneris
- 25 Highly Important Paintings by Norman LewisBy Norman Lewis
- Beauford Delaney & Norman Lewis: Abstractionist VisionsBy Bill Hodges Gallery