Norman Lewis (artist)

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Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis self-portrait, 1939.jpg
Self-Portrait (1939)
Norman Wilfred Lewis

(1909-07-23)July 23, 1909
Harlem, New York
DiedAugust 27, 1979(1979-08-27) (aged 70)
Known forPainting
MovementAbstract expressionism

Norman Wilfred Lewis (July 23, 1909 – August 27, 1979) was an American painter, scholar, and teacher. Lewis, who was African-American (of Bermudian descent), was associated with abstract expressionism, and used representational strategies to focus on black urban life and his community's struggles.

Early life and career[edit]

Norman Wilfred Lewis was born on July 23, 1909 in New York, New York.[1] Always interested in art, he had amassed a large art history library by the time he was a young man. Lewis attended Columbia University and studied art with Augusta Savage.[2] A lifelong resident of Harlem, he also traveled 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 Community Art Center. He also participated in Works Progress Administration art projects alongside Jackson Pollock, among others.

Lewis began his career in 1930, with earlier mostly figurative work. 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.

He also painted social realism, painting with "an overtly figurative style, depicting bread lines, evictions, and police brutality."[3]

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, "and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."[4]

Norman Lewis was the only African- American artist among the first generation of abstract expressionists; his work was overlooked by both White and African-American art dealers and gallery owners.[5] He did not fit into either category perfectly. As was recently noted in a catalogue accompanying a major retrospective of Lewis's paintings this omission seem clear enough.[6] His work was overlooked many times because of his political involvement, and also because of the area where he lived. His skin colour at this time period had a major impact on his work life.

Later work[edit]

Jazz Band (1948)

In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract. His total engagement with abstract expressionism was due partially to his disillusionment with America after his wartime experiences in World War II. It seemed extremely hypocritical that America was fighting "against an enemy whose master race ideology was echoed at home by the fact of a segregated armed forces."[7] Seeing that art does not have the power to change the political state that society was in, he decided that people should develop their aesthetic skills more, instead of focusing on political art. 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.[4]

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.[8]

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.[9]

He died unexpectedly on August 27, 1979, in New York.[1]

Spiral artist group[edit]

Lewis was a founding member of Spiral, a group of artists and writers who met regularly that included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff.[8] The group met "to discuss the potential of Black artists to engage with issues of racial equality and struggle in the 1960s through their work." [10] Despite Spiral's short existence, it was very impactful in the art world, as it called attention to many issues of racial inequality that existed at the time.

For instance, due to Spiral and other groups' continuous protest against the 1968 controversial exhibit "Harlem on My Mind" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Black people became more visible in the art world.[10] Before this exhibition, the Met did not feature anything on New York's cultural powerhouse neighborhood Harlem. Harlem is known for its art and music, but this exhibition featured no self-representation of that from the neighborhood. Instead, it was composed of photographs that a non-Harlemite photographer took of the people who lived there. Many people protested that more Black culture should be exhibited, instead of this kind of zoo exhibition, where there is an us (the affluent white dominant audience) versus them (the Harlemites).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Norman Lewis", Encyclopedia Britannica, Retrieved online 18 October 2018.
  2. ^ Lewis, Samella (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0520239357.
  3. ^ "Norman Lewis / American Art". Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Reappraising the art of Norman Lewis". CBS News. Retrieved February 28, 2018.
  6. ^ "Abstract Expressionism and Third World Art: A Post-Colonial Approach to 'American' Art on JSTOR". JSTOR 1360277. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  7. ^ Jennings, Corrine (1989). Norman Lewis. New York: Kenkeleba House.
  8. ^ a b "Norman Lewis", Art in America, Retrieved online 18 October 2018.
  9. ^ "Norman Lewis", John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  10. ^ a b Cooks, Bridget (2007). "Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind, 1969". American Studies.



Further reading[edit]

  • Wood, Sara (2009). "'Pure Eye Music': Norman Lewis, Abstract Expressionism, and Bebop". The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195340518.