Norman Lewis - Biography and Legacy
Harlem, New York
Harlem, New York
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.