Biography

Known for his calligraphic abstract compositions, Norman Lewis (American, 1909-1979) was a vital member of the first generation of abstract expressionists. He was the sole African American artist of his generation who became committed to issues of abstraction at the start of his career and continued to explore them throughout his lifetime. Lewis’ art derived energy from his vast interests in music – both classical and jazz - as well as nature, ancient ceremonial rituals, and social justice/equality issues central to the civil rights movement.

A native of New York City, Norman Wilfred Lewis was born to St. Kitts immigrants Diana and Wilfred Lewis. The Lewis family lived in Harlem, and as a youth, Lewis held various jobs throughout his schooling but knew he wanted to be an artist from the age of ten. In 1929, Lewis found work as a seaman on a freighter and spent several years traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean, meeting local people and witnessing firsthand 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 artist and educator 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 Teachers College. 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. A regular at 306, a cultural center in Harlem that attracted musicians, writers and young artists, Lewis was a co-founder of the Harlem Artists Guild (HAG) in 1935. In 1936, he began working for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, teaching classes. 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:  A National Survey of Contemporary American Artists, and the following year, Lewis joined the growing number of New York abstract artists represented by 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, Charles Seliger, 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, organized by de Kooning and Kline and moderated by Museum of Modern Art Director, Alfred J. Barr. 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 the canon 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. He was a founding member of the Spiral Group, and 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. In 1969, Lewis joined Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Clifford Joseph, Roy DeCarava, Alice Neel, and others in picketing the infamous Harlem on My Mind show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. That same year, he, Bearden, and Ernest Crichlow 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), a Mark Rothko Foundation Individual Artists Grant (1972), and a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1975), Lewis had his first retrospective exhibition in 1976 at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.

Since his death in 1979, his work has been celebrated in numerous exhibitions; significant recent museum group exhibitions include Abstract Expressionist New York at the Museum of Modern Art (2010); From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis (2014, curated by Norman Kleeblatt) at The Jewish Museum (NYC);  Postwar-Art between the Pacific and Atlantic, 1945-1965, (2016, curated by Katy Siegal and Okwui Enwezor) at the HausDerKunst (Munich);  The Color Line: African American Artists and the Civil Rights in the United States (2016, curated by Daniel Soutif) at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris; and Abstract Expressionism, curated by David Anfam for the Royal Academy of Arts, London, England (2016).  

In 1998, The Studio Museum in Harlem presented Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-1977 and most recently, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) organized Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, his first comprehensive museum overview. Curated by Ruth Fine, this landmark survey which was accompanied by an award winning monograph featured new scholarship from Fine along with essays by David Acton, Andrianna Campbell, David C. Driskell, Jacqueline Francis, Helen M. Shannon and Jeffrey C. Stewart. On March 20, 2016, CBS Sunday Morning celebrated this exhibition with a feature anchored by correspondent Jim Axelrod.

Norman Lewis is represented in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MA); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); The Newark Museum (NJ); Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York, NY); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); and The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY).