Norman Wilfred Lewis (1909 – 1979, 70)
Driven to abstraction! The discomfiting overlooked outsider who found a freedom in abstraction.
Slavery’s long shadow: authentic front rank NY School Abstract Expressionist painter bypassed one way and another because of his colour.
American art took path of least resistance, tip toed round a leading black painter, discomfited by race and his art.
Ironically his colour stimulated his work, likely encouraged his embrace of abstraction?
1936, Fantasy, Oil and ink on canvas, 80 x 102 cm, Courtesy of Leslie Lewis and Christina Lewis Halpern.
COMMENT: How unlikely. Yes there seem allusions here to Kandinsky and perhaps also Paul Klee. But nonetheless here is a striking image from the young (27 year old) painter, just after studying with Augusta Savage and at Columbia University in New York.
- Norman Lewis’ contribution to American art from just before WW2 though to the 1970s has been profoundly underappreciated, underrated.
- Lewis has been largely ignored by the mainstream art establishment (critics, museums and the market), in the US and elsewhere, then and until recently (1).
- But from c1946 he was a front rank New York School Abstract Expressionist (AE) painter. Detached appraisal suggests the substance of his sustained abstraction oeuvre – its distinctive originality and constructive variety – bears comparison with the popularly feted AE big guns.
- The only obvious material differences were firstly, scale (Lewis did not paint large look-at-me wall fillers, partly because he couldn’t afford the studio space), and, secondly, he did not settle on a catchy marketable artistic device – a signature stylistic template – and pursue it mercilessly, like Pollock’s intense “drip”, Rothko’s Color Field ethereal floating rectangles, Newman’s “zip”, Still’s geological shards, and de Kooning’s coarse Expressionist quasi-figuration.
- Lewis’ total abstraction oeuvre was striking in variety and its originality, distinctive in a number of aspects: 1/ his calligraphic”, “neural” or “string-bag” abstraction; 2/ his fine linear abstraction, using angular fragments or “shards; 3/ his quasi-figurative, miniature, pictographic “little figures” abstraction; and 4/ his powerful pared black and white / red and white quasi-abstraction.
- This equivocal mainstream reaction is ironic given the influence of “primitive” African art on modern Western art, and also the recent rapturous art market response to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was also NY based.
Why overlooked? Race.
- Why was he overlooked, despite the objective quality of his work? The variety of his work is an issue. His very range was a mouthful, though to discerning critics this should be constructive.
- It’s hard to avoid simply that color, being black, was the issue. His race and his art discomfited the art market, inhibited engagement and detached appreciation.
- This not necessarily reflected overt racism as much as the path of least resistance (for both the mainstream and “black” art worlds), ie to avoid having to confront the matter of race (inherently controversial in the US because of the sustained injustice, across two centuries), and then Lewis’s particular case, ie first as the only black Abstract Expressionist and second as a painter who personally uttered on the matter, in a number of powerful works.
- But though Lewis saw himself as a painter first (below) he could hardly avoid not commenting through his work, coinciding as he did with the historic Civil Rights movement which finally in the early 1960s brought remedial historic reform.
- Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Painter of distinction, ironically in part because of race.
- Lewis is a painter of distinction, interesting especially because of questions posed by his colour, a predicament not of his choosing.
- It was a dilemma he could never escape or resolve.
- Thus as a black painter in the USA he could hardly overlook his people’s mistreatment. But to the extent he responded politically through his art he risked devaluing or compromising his status as a painter, and, more concretely, hurting his income.
- The real irony was that this dilemma was exacerbated precisely because he was not just a painter but a mainstream painter, the only African-American in the post WW2 New York School. So on the one hand he was under that much more pressure to publically support his people, but on the other had that much more to lose.
- But near a century after the Civil War African-Americans in the USA still suffered systematic discrimination: comparative electoral disenfranchisement and widespread segregation laws. So as an informed and educated black painter in the USA, and a leading one, he did respond, across his whole adult life, in his personal life and especially through some of his art, through many polemical works, some searing, in both his early Social Realist career and later abstraction.
- But as a painter, especially as a prominent full-time career painter, he was also concerned to be judged as a generic painter, not to be trapped or devalued by his identity as a “black painter”. Thus he was conscious of art’s aesthetic as well as polemical purpose.
- But he couldn’t win. If he didn’t protest he let his people down. If he did it cost him. So he did protest and it did cost him, his polemical activity discouraging the commercial interest in, appetite for his work.
Lewis’ abstraction: encouraged by his colour?
- As a thoughtful career artist Lewis was obviously aware of abstraction and indeed executed such a work early as 1936. But ironically it seems likely the difficult matter for him of colour was a reason for him finally embracing abstraction, suddenly and for good c1945, as Abstract Expressionism was arriving. It allowed him greater creative freedom, to further a career as a painter, not just a black painter.
- But again ironically, while abstraction gave him more room to move it also arguably powerfully augmented his political statements, particularly the quasi-representational works in the early 1960s, an historic period of Civil Rights protest and reform.
- Unlike many or most of the main 20th C abstract painters, Lewis’s abstraction was not ‘spiritual’, rather was motivated by his life experience, particularly music and Harlem city life, but also nature, and politics.
Notes. 1/ Lewis’ first large scale full retrospective show did not arrive till 2016, 38 years after he died. Then one of his works (and an important one) did hang in the late 2016 comprehensive Abstract Expressionist exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, the first such comprehensive show in London in over 50 years, since 1959. In the catalogue editor David Anfam rightly flags Lewis, mentions Elaine de Kooning’s support in the wake of his 1949 solo hanging at the Willard Gallery.
Twilight Sounds, 1947. Oil on canvas, 60 x 71 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum. COMMENT: Inspired by music. Recalls Joan Miro?
- American Totem, Oil on canvas, 191 x 114cm. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
1964, Processional, 94 x 48.3cm, oil on canvas,
COMMENT: Two gripping political images from the tense early 1960s period in the US when Civil Rights protest and (finally) reform was coming to a head. The first refers to an art device used by some native peoples. The second shows what might be a march, white and black people walking together. Through the night of the struggle, daylight ahead?
C1960, Alabama, oil on canvas, 122 x 184cm. COMMENT: This striking work recalls Jackson Pollock’s important late work, The Deep (1953). It was a response to a sit-in at Alabama State University in 1960.
1962 Evening Rendezvous, oil on linen, 127.7 x 163.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum
COMMENT: A dark political work employing Lewis’s trademark miniaturised stick-figure quasi-abstraction, apparently depicting a nocturnal Klan gathering around a fire. The red white and blue scheme obviously parodies the colours on America’s national flag.
1962 Bonfire, Oil on canvas, 163 x 127cm, The Studio Museum in Harlem.
COMMENT: Another enigmatic political painting from the same tense early 1960s period
LEFT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950 (organized by de Kooning and Kline)
Left to right: Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst, Peter Grippe, Adolf Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Barr (glasses far end, left), Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, James Brooks, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Poussette-Dart.
RIGHT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950
Left to right: David Smith, Seymour Lipton, ??? (behind), Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst.
Photos by Aaron Siskind. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.
An undated portrait of Norman Lewis. Credit Willard Gallery Archives.
COMMENT: Circa late 1940s? His important Metropolitan Crowd (1946), hangs to left of the artist.
COMMENT: great photo