Norman Lewis (artist)

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Norman Lewis
Born (1909-07-23)July 23, 1909
Harlem, New York
Died August 27, 1979(1979-08-27) (aged 70)
Nationality American
Known for Painting
Movement Abstract expressionism

Norman W. Lewis (July 23, 1909 – August 27, 1979) was an African-American painter, scholar, and teacher. He is associated with Abstract Expressionism. Lewis was African-American, of Bermudian descent.

Early life and career[edit]

Norman Wilfred Lewis was born in Harlem, New York. His parents had emigrated from Bermuda. Always interested in art, he had amassed a large art history library by the time he was a young man. A lifelong resident of Harlem, he also travelled extensively during the two years that he worked on ocean freighters. An important early influence was the sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage, who provided him with open studio space at her Harlem Art Center. He also participated in WPA art projects, alongside Jackson Pollock, among others.

He was an early member of the Spiral Group, a group of artists and writers who met regularly that included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff.

His earlier work was mostly figurative. He at first painted what he saw, which ranged from Meeting Place (1930), a swap meet scene, and The Yellow Hat (1936), a formal Cubist painting, to Dispossessed (1940), an eviction scene, and Jazz Musicians (1948), a visual depiction of the bebop that was being played in Harlem.

Lewis said he struggled to express social conflict in his art, but in his later years, focused on the inherently aesthetic. "The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development," he told art historian Kellie Jones in 1949, "and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."[1]

Later work[edit]

In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract. Tenement I (1952), Harlem Turns White (1955), and Night Walker No. 2 (1956) are all examples of his style. Twilight Sounds (1947) and Jazz Band (1948) are examples of his interest in conveying music.

One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum's 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition, the New York Herald-Tribune calling the painting "one of the most significant of all events of the 1955 art year." His signature style in those decades included repetitive ideographic or hieroglyphic elements that allowed Lewis to incorporate narrative sequences into his paintings.[1]

His later work includes Alabama II (1969), Part Vision (1971), and New World Acoming (1971), as well as a series called Seachange done in his last years. In 1963 he was a founding member of the SPIRAL Group.

Although represented by galleries, and the recipient of many awards and good reviews, his work did not sell nearly as well as the other Abstract Expressionists he exhibited with, such as Mark Tobey or Mark Rothko. His body of work included paintings, drawings, and murals. Mostly he supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, through teaching. In 1972, he received a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1975 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

He died unexpectedly on August 27, 1979, in New York.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945 1. New York, NY: The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. 2003. ISBN 0-942949-24-2. 

Book Sources[edit]


  • Norman W. Lewis - Linear Abstractions, by Susan Inniss, 2002, Bill Hodges Gallery, ISBN 1-891978-16-0
  • 25 Highly Important Paintings by Norman Lewis, Bill Hodges Gallery
  • "Norman W. Lewis, The Second Transition: 1947-1951", 1994, Bill Hodges Gallery
  • "NORMAN LEWIS, A Painter's Odyssey: 1935-1979", 2009, Bill Hodges Gallery, ISBN 1-891978-26-8

External links[edit]