Harlem, New York
Harlem, New York
Summary of Norman Lewis
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.
- 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 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.
Important Art by Norman Lewis
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.
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.''
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.
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
- The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract PaintersBy Hilarie M. Sheets / ARTnews / June 4, 2014
- The Color Black: On the Painter's Canvas and in the WorldBy William Zimmer / The New York Times / May 30, 1999
- Shades of Meaning From a Black ModernistBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / April 17, 1998
- A Forgotten Voice From an Age of ExplorationOur PickBy Barry Schwabsky / The New York Times / February 9, 1997
- Castle Offers Works of Norman LewisBy Vivien Raynor / The New York Times / May 19, 1985