Lewis, Norman 1909–1979
Norman Lewis 1909–1979
Norman Lewis was the first major African-American member of the art movement known as Abstract Expressionism. As such, he occupies a unique position in the history of twentieth-century art. Although he was politically active for much of his long career, he turned to an abstract painting style that carried no explicit social or political content. Lewis was quoted as saying, according to the book The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, “I am not interested in an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions, but in my work I am looking for something of deeper artistic and philosophic content.” Although neglected during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s, Lewis’s work had begun to stimulate new interest by the end of the twentieth century.
Lewis was born in New York City on July 23, 1909, to Bermudian-American parents, but he was raised mostly by an Armenian-born clothing shop owner in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem. Lewis’s guardian encouraged him in a wide range of activities, hoping to keep him out of Harlem’s violent pool halls, and Lewis learned to sew and press clothing, served as a pageboy at New York’s George M. Cohan Theater, and later worked as a seaman on a vessel bound for South America. In addition to attaining a wealth of experience and practical skills, Lewis also attended Columbia University.
Mostly self-taught as an artist, in the early 1930s, Lewis financed his purchase of art books and canvases with gambling winnings. For a time he studied with the Harlem-based sculptor Augusta Savage, who was at the time one of only a few female sculptors in the United States. Lewis also taught art in a New York City junior high school in 1935 and then at the Harlem Art Center in 1937. According to the New York Times, he described himself as “more a social welfare worker” than an art teacher. Lewis would hold various teaching jobs over the rest of his career, but he also worked as a porter, house painter, and taxi driver. In the late 1930s Lewis was a beneficiary of the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration arts-funding project. According to The Afro-American Artist, he called the WPA “a beautiful thing,” and “a hell of a spiritual thing.”
It was during this period that Lewis’s first distinctive paintings appeared. As a member of the leftist-oriented John Reed Club and a student at its art school, Lewis created works in the Social Realist mode, depicting problems faced by working-class Americans, painting images of events such as a family’s eviction from their apartment. He became involved in union organizing among longshoremen, which antagonized his father, who was working as a dock foreman at the time. Even at this stage, however, Lewis showed a strong inclination toward basic geometric patterns and forms. His 1936 painting Yellow Hat shows a seated African-American woman wearing a white dress and a yellow hat, with her head leaning forward and resting on her hand, so that the hand is mostly concealed under the
At a Glance…
Born on July 23, 1909, in New York, NY; died on August 27, 1979, in New York, NY; married Ouida. Education: Graduated from Columbia University; studied with sculptor Augusta Savage at Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts; studied at John Reed Club art school, mid-1930s.
Career: Painter; traveled through the Americas as a seaman, ca. 1929-31; Savage Studio, New York, instructor, 1935-37; taught junior high school in New York City, 1935; taught at Harlem Art Center, beneficiary of Federal Art Project, 1936-39; George Washington Carver School, art teacher, 1943-44; Thomas Jefferson School, art teacher, 1944-49; first solo exhibition, Willard Gallery, 1949; identified with Abstract Expressionist movement, 1950s and 1960s; HARY-OUACT, art instructor, 1965-71; Art Students League, art instructor, 1972-77; paintings are exhibited at numerous U.S. museums.
Selected memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1970; National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971.
Selected awards: Carnegie Institute Award, 1955; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972; Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, 1975.
hat’s large brim. The painting presents the viewer with circles, lines, and the sharply drawn angles of the woman’s arms.
In the late 1930s Lewis began to exhibit his work, sometimes at local venues such as the Harlem YWCA but also farther afield; in 1939 his paintings were shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art and at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1940s the geometric aspects of Lewis’s work became stronger, and he studied the works of earlier European painters who had moved in the same direction, such as the Cubist Georges Braque and, for a time, Pablo Picasso. “I did a lot of looking and listening,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “I wanted to be above criticism, so that my work didn’t have to be discussed in terms of the fact that I’m black.” By 1945 he was producing completely abstract paintings with titles like Composition Number One and Untitled 5.
This trend toward abstraction was also evident in the work of white artists at the same time. Lewis arrived at an abstract style somewhat independently, but by the late 1940s, he was identified with the Abstract Expressionist movement, which was centered in New York City, and was characterized by abstract patterns and by a fascination with the act of painting itself. The group’s leader, Jackson Pollock, climbed ladders and let paint drip onto canvases from on high. Lewis had the same way of thinking. “Just manipulating the paint was exciting to me,” he was quoted as saying, according to the New York Times.
In 1946 he gained the sponsorship of a prestigious retailer, New York’s Willard Gallery. Art historian Elsa Honig Fine, author of The Afro-American Artist, noted, however, that wealthy art buyers at gallery openings “were more likely to ask him for a drink than to discuss his aesthetic theories.” Still, Lewis made several friends among leading white Abstract Expressionists, including Mark Tobey and Lyonel Feininger, and he continued to develop his own vision of the style. One key breakthrough came in the mid-1950s while Lewis was fishing near Block Island. Sitting in fog, he noticed how it obscured the outlines of shapes, yet seemed to reveal their essential qualities. Many of his subsequent abstract paintings feature hazy forms with muted yet luminous colors, quite distinct from the increasingly severe and theory-driven productions of some of Lewis’s white contemporaries. A painting like 1960’s Good Morning, although completely abstract, seems to suggest a sunrise, or a growing light of a more inward kind.
Some art historians view the Abstract Expressionist movement as a retreat from the political sphere after the horrors of World War II, and Lewis agreed that art should avoid direct political statements. “Painting pictures about social conditions doesn’t change the social conditions,” Lewis said in a 1977 film quoted in Artforum International. Lewis himself, however, was artistically inspired by the civil rights era. He sometimes made direct references to it, as in a 1960 painting titled Ku Klux Klan, which contained a sequence of hoodlike shapes. Lewis taught at HARYOUACT (Harlem Youth in Action), a Harlem youth cultural group that flowered in the 1960s. He was a co-founder of the Spiral Group, an association of black artists, and in 1969 he co-founded the Cinque Gallery. In 1971 Lewis was at the center of controversy when he withdrew his works from a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art after conflict flared between curators and several African-American artists.
One marker of Lewis’s work during this period was his frequent use of black paint. Acccording to an exhibition catalogue essay quoted in the New York Times, Lewis “claimed that his interest in black was purely formal,” but critic Grady Turner, writing in Art in America, argued that “for an artist concerned with race relations, black is too significant a color to be used merely for formal juxtapositions.” Turner pointed out that black played a key role in Lewis’s canvases of the 1960s that most directly evoked the civil rights struggle.
Lewis remained active until the end of his life, and painted a mural at the Brooklyn Boys’ High School a few years before his death in New York City on August 27, 1979. After his death, Lewis’s reputation declined somewhat, along with those of the other Abstract Expressionists, as art began once again to represent the outside world. But the 1990s saw a spate of exhibitions and re-evaluations of Lewis’s output. Some critics argued that Lewis ultimately showed less of the daring originality that Abstract Expressionism had in the hands of artists such as Pollock, but others found an artist who had consistently followed his own inner dictates and had produced something that transcended prevailing styles. “The stature of Lewis’s work is such that he can be seen as a paradigmatic artist and not merely as a late addition to the Abstract Expressionist canon,” wrote Susan Inniss on the website of the Bill Hodges Gallery. His works are held in the collections of numerous major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Yellow Hat, 1936.
Untitled 5, 1947.
Good Morning, 1960.
Mural, Brooklyn Boys’ High School, mid-1970s.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickinson, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary, Boston Public Library, 1973.
Cummings, Paul, Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists, St. Martin’s, 1994.
Fine, Elsa Honig, The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James, 1997.
Art in America, September 1994, p. 115; January 1999, p. 104.
Artforum International, Summer 1998, p. 125.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 29, 1999, p. Q8.
New York Times, August 29, 1979; February 9, 1997, New Jersey Weekly ed., p. NJ13; April 17, 1998, p. E2; May 30, 1999, Connecticut Weekly ed., p. CN14.
“Norman Lewis,” Bill Hodges Gallery, www.bill-hodgesgallery.com/normanlewis/bio.html (March 24, 2003).
“Norman Lewis Biography,” Narratives of African American Art and Identity, www.artgallery.umd.edu/driskell/exhibition/sec5/lewi_n_02.htm (March 24, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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