Norman Lewis - First Major African American Abstract Expressionist.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
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"...the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."

"For many years, I, too, struggled single-mindedly to express social conflict through my painting. However, gradually I came to realize that certain things are true: The development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers from such emphasis; the content of truly creative work must be inherently aesthetic or the work becomes merely another form of illustration; therefore, the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.”[1]

A native of New York City, Norman Wilfred Lewis was born to Bermudan immigrants Diana and Wilfred Lewis. The Lewis family lived on Lennox Avenue, and for most of Norman’s childhood, they were one of the few black families in Harlem, an experience that made him aware of racial inequality from an early age. As a youth, Lewis held various jobs throughout his schooling but knew he wanted to be an artist from the age of nine. When he was about twenty, Lewis found work on a freighter and spent several years traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean, meeting the people and witnessing first hand the poverty of Bolivia, Uruguay, Jamaica, and elsewhere. Upon his return to the United States, Lewis settled back in New York City.

In the early 1930s, Lewis met Augusta Savage, who ran an arts school in Harlem and was involved with lobbying the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to hire more black artists. From 1933 to 1935, he took classes at the Savage School of Arts and Crafts and attended Columbia University. Lewis’s deep commitment to social and economic equality led him to join the Artists Union, which was organized to protect the rights of artists and workers, and to help found the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. The Guild lobbied for and won federal funding for the Harlem Community Arts Center. In 1936, he began working for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, teaching classes at the newly formed Harlem center (where William H. Johnson also taught) and at the George Washington Carver School, where colleagues included Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. Lewis’s art at the time was grounded in social realism and focused on the lives and struggles of black Americans. But in the 1940s, he began to explore abstraction. While he remained active in the struggle for civil rights throughout his life, Lewis was skeptical about the power of art to effect change, explaining in a 1968 interview, “one of the things in my own self education, was the discouraging fact that painting pictures of protest didn't bring about any change.”[2]

In 1945, Alain Locke included Lewis’s work in the exhibition The Negro Artist Comes of Age, and the following year, Lewis joined the growing number of New York abstract artists represented by the Marian Willard Gallery. From his first solo show at Willard in 1949 to the mid-1950s, Lewis’s reputation steadily grew, and he developed his own individual style consisting of calligraphic, fluid forms suggesting groups of figures engaged in kinetic activity. Traveling in the same circles as prominent abstractionists, Lewis befriended Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. In 1950, he was the only black artist to participate in the famous closed-door sessions defining abstract expressionism held at Studio 35 and organized by de Kooning and Kline. A year later, MoMA included his work in the exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. Despite a decade of artistic achievement and consistently favorable reviews, Lewis never received the kind of recognition and financial success his white colleagues enjoyed, and it was only in the late twentieth century that his work began to occupy a central place in histories of American art. Lewis himself was aware of this disparity and of the related expectation in the art world at the time that African American artists document “the black experience.”

Throughout his career, Lewis pursued his unique artistic vision while also remaining committed to his political beliefs and dedicated to the people of Harlem. He was a founding member of the Spiral Group (1963), which sought to contribute to the Civil Rights movement through the visual arts. From 1965 to 1971, he taught for HARYOU-ACT, Inc. (Harlem Youth in Action), an antipoverty program designed to encourage young men and women to stay in school. He joined Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Clifford Joseph, Roy DeCarava, Reginald Gammon, Henri Ghent, Raymond Saunders, Alice Neel, and others in picketing the infamous 1969 Harlem on My Mind show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that same year, with Bearden and Ernest Crichlow, Lewis co-founded Cinqué Gallery, dedicated to fostering the careers of emerging artists of color. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1972) and a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1975), Lewis received his first retrospective exhibition in 1976 at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York. Lewis died in his home city in 1979 and has since been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

[1] Norman Lewis in his 1949 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship printed in Norman Lewis: From the Harlem Renaissance to Abstraction, Kenkeleba Gallery, 1989, p.63.

[2] Oral history interview with Norman Lewis, 1968 July 14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. (accessed February 2009).

Image: Norman Lewis - Untitled - Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee