Progression of Art
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 - 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