During the 1950s, could a Black artist rise to prominence as an abstract expressionist painter? Norman Lewis believed he could. And why not? Abstract Expressionism — the first American art movement to achieve global influence — trumpeted the limitlessness of artistic horizons.
But limitless for whom? How many Black abstract expressionists can you name? Think about that for a second.
After years of painting I become aware that a canvas is composed basically of shapes, and how if you arrange the shapes in an interesting fashion it can be visually stimulating, and it doesn’t have to be a form that you know.
I also became aware of the individualism of certain artists. They were just doing what they wanted to do…..so why not me?Norman Lewis, interviewed by Vivian Browne, 1974
The unhappy truth is that Norman Lewis never found fame, nor does his work appear in the art history tomes alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, and the other painters with whom he is closely associated. Is this because he is the only Black artist among the first generation of abstract expressionists? Or is there some other reason?
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In their fight against racial injustice, the postwar Black art community pinned its hopes on a more easily-deciphered style called Social Realism, which portrays men and women as symbols of persistence in the face of adversity.
Early in his career, Lewis painted in the Social Realist manner. In Johnny the Wanderer, a Black man tries to warm himself before a small fire in an oil can, his hat and shoulders strewn with snow. The upper right corner of the canvas provides a chilly glimpse of the outside world during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce.
Known by his friends as a persistent questioner, Lewis also studied European paintings, particularly the work of Modigliani and Picasso. The Yellow Hat was inspired by the shallow space and the massing of geometric forms — those spheres, cones, and cubes — associated with Cubism. The tilt of the young woman’s hat adds to the air of mystery. What problem is she trying to solve?
Ultimately, Lewis stepped away from Social Realism because he wished to develop “a whole new concept of myself as a painter” and because he didn’t believe the style would achieve its objectives.
The protest art I was trying to paint never solved anything. A Goya print never stopped a war. The only way to solve a political situation is to go out and take some kind of physical action. A picket line says more to the masses than a painting. Most people don’t see paintings.Norman Lewis, Archives of American Art interview, 1968
Inside his New York City studio, Lewis moved toward abstraction by disengaging line from color, but not completely. In nature, he found the delicate balance he was trying to achieve.
One morning while I was fishing off Long Island, it became foggy and the sky and water catalyzed so that you could not see the point where they fell together. Fog, this ethereal filter, fascinated me. It became the dominant undertone in much of my painting.Norman Lewis, as quoted by Romare Bearden, 1973
In these atmospheric canvases, Lewis uses color to create space, and line to establish a rhythmic counterpoint to color. His more muted colors hint at shimmering marine memories and nocturnal landscapes.
His most distinctive and powerful works evoke cultural festivals and procession rituals. In Evening Rendezvous, what might we be looking at? A funeral procession? A civil rights march? As we peer through the fog, do the dabs of white paint transform into hooded Klansmen carrying angry red torches?
You wonder, “What do I have to say?” What can I say that can be of any value? What can I say that will arouse someone to look and feel awed by it? This is where it gets really challenging.Norman Lewis, Archives of American Art interview, 1968
In the politically turbulent 1960s, Lewis created a whole series of pointedly black-and-white paintings full of gestural brushstrokes that tumble backwards and forwards, and then press on — a metaphor for the social struggles endured by Black Americans. Untitled/Alabama, with its wedge-like wall, foreshadows the site-specific sculpture of Richard Serra and Maya Lin.
It’s likely some of Lewis’s work veered too close to the forbidden territory of figural painting to be accepted by critics like Clement Greenberg.
If so, it’s a flimsy reason to omit Lewis from the canon. Willem de Kooning’s paintings are vaguely figural and he’s a founding father of the group. In fact, most abstract expressionist paintings have a subject, it’s just portrayed in a less detectable form. “I choose to veil the imagery,” said Jackson Pollock.
Disappointed and hurt by the lack of museum recognition, Lewis found acceptance and friendship with Pollock and the other artists. He exhibited with them at the Willard Gallery, drank with them at the Cedar Street Tavern, and debated with them at the historic Studio 35 symposium, a three-day event after which the term “abstract expressionism” was coined.
Many curators still characterize Lewis as a lone visionary or as a member of a well-defined circle of Black artists. He is neither.
Norman Lewis is a sophisticated colorist and gifted technician whose beautifully conceived abstract images portray his innermost feelings about nature and human nature. A poetic painter, he is considered by many scholars to be the first Black American artist to fully engage with abstraction. “Pure eye music” said an admiring critic.
There is a temptation to think Lewis is a musician as well as a painter, for he starts softly on a blank page, like a musician improvising, and as he sees a suitable motif taking shape, swings into it with confidence, plays it up for what it is worth and then, satisfied that he has gone the whole way with it, permits it to fade softly out.Henry McBride, Art News, 1952
“So why in Hell aren’t you famous?” asked an art collector in 1955.
I was beginning to despair of ever finding the answer to that question when along comes Pulitizer-Prize-winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson with a new book that sheds some light, albeit unintentionally. Jefferson recalls how her father, an esteemed pediatrician, never got over being cut from the marching band at the University of Southern California years ago:
The white directors let him join the regular band. He was a good trombonist, they said. But the marching band was a university spectacle meant to affirm the easy, unconstrained unity of fans, families, and donors. A Black student in their midst would mar the symmetrical patterning of this whole.Margo Jefferson, “Constructing a Nervous System,” 2022
Simply put, Norman Lewis did not fit easily and comfortably into the story of American art being written in the 1950s. White historians weren’t up to the task of penetrating a Black artist’s lived experience and his deep-seated interest in abstract expressionism.
But stories can be rewritten. We can look back and see what may have been overlooked or misunderstood or not properly appreciated. It may be too late for Norman Lewis to feel seen, but it’s not too late for his work to be seen.