The Art of Norman Lewis

I recently completed a painting to feature on the cover of ‘Together’ Marsden the Poetry Village Anthology, launching during this year's Marsden Jazz Festival. The piece was influenced by American abstract artist Norman Lewis.

Norman Lewis in the studio Photo: Budd Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.

Title unknown, 1946, oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Norman Lewis (1909 –1979) is an important but overlooked figure in American abstraction. His better known contemporaries and fellow abstract expressionists included Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Lewis was the first major African American abstract expressionist but his race no doubt played a part in keeping him from the wider recognition he deserves.

An African-American abstract artist presented challenges to both the white establishment and the black art scene. James Panero from the Wall Street Times on reviewing Lewis’ first retrospective in 2015 (35 years after his death) writes about his frustration “over the forces that have long conspired to keep Lewis from greater attention—a specific bigotry that goes beyond race to an unspoken prejudice against artists who dare to work outside of expected limits.”

Born in Harlem and working within New York City’s downtown art scene, Lewis first began painting in a figural style grounded in social realism, focusing on bread lines, police brutality, and the struggles of black Americans. Lewis transitioned to a more abstract style of art during the 1940s and 1950s, continuing to focus on social inequalities but growing increasingly interested in personal expression rather than representation. Lewis thought that art could not solve society’s problems, but Evening Rendezvous, for example, addresses political activism and humanitarian concerns through hazy visuals inspired by clandestine Ku Klux Klan gatherings.

Norman Lewis, Evening Rendezvous, 1962, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

White and blue shapes represent the Ku Klux Klan. Red blotches represent a large bonfire at which they are gathering. The combination of red, white, and blue mocks the patriotism that the Klan claimed as its defence.

Around 1946 he began exploring an overall, gestural approach to abstraction. Like other abstract expressionists working in New York, Lewis was deeply interested in music, and especially jazz, which influenced the painting of Phantasy II. In an automatic process he made a linear composition with boldly coloured lines and forms akin to the improvisational structure of jazz.

Norman Lewis, Phantasy II, 1946, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art.

The Harlem Renaissance

Living in New York in the 1930s Lewis was perfectly placed to help the direction of visual artists during the Harlem Renaissance, a “flowering” of black creativity centered on Harlem, from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s . It embraced all art forms, including literature, performance, music and visual art.

Prior to World War I, black painters and sculptors had rarely concerned themselves with African American subject matter. By the end of the 1920s, however, black artists had begun developing styles related to black aesthetic traditions of Africa or to folk art.

Harlem artists wanted to reclaim the stereotypes and caricatures that had been used against them to redress the power relationship and take control of their depicted identity.

The Harlem Renaissance ended in the 1930s after the Stock Market Crass and the effects of the Great Depression set in. The economic downturn led to the departure of Harlem's prominent artists and writers. The renaissance didn’t achieve the transformation it had hoped but the movement marked a turning point in black cultural history and helped to establish the authority of black writers and artists over the representation of black culture and experience. The Harlem Renaissance helped to redefine how Americans and the world understood African American culture. It integrated black and white cultures, and marked the beginning of a black urban society and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Norman Lewis, Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965, oil on fiberboard.