Norman Lewis on Paper
by Laura Heyrman
Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was born in Harlem in New York City and lived in New York all his life. Self-taught at first, Lewis went on to study with Harlem Renaissance artist Augusta Savage and elsewhere. He joined other Black artists and writers in New York, including Savage, Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison, and Jacob Lawrence, in discussing the role of art and artists in society and working to encourage young Blacks to choose an art career.
At the beginning of his career, Lewis experimented with Social Realism, a popular movement of the 1930s and 1940s, in which artists focused on what they saw around them. Lewis' subjects were drawn from his Black community. In 1976, he told an interviewer that he had believed that such images would change the way American society viewed and treated Black people. After World War Two, he became disillusioned and doubted that art could change society as he had hoped. At this point, Lewis separated his political and social activism from his art-making. He said, "The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."
As Lewis developed his abstract approach in the late 1940s, he became acquainted with the artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He was the only Black artist associated with the first generation of that movement, but the galleries and collectors who supported the white artists of the movement were unwilling to provide equal resources to a Black artist. At the same time, galleries and collectors who promoted other Black artists were not interested in Lewis’ extremely abstract art, preferring artists who used more narrative, representational form. Throughout his career, the artist found it difficult to attract the attention, publicity, and sales that he hoped for. In the 1960s, he even worked as a New York cab driver to help pay his bills.
In the last 25 years, Norman Lewis’ work has begun to receive some of the attention and scholarship that it deserves. The artist’s work on paper is the subject of a current exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York. “Norman Lewis: Give Me Wings To Fly” (September 7 – November 3, 2023) covers the whole of the artist’s career. Some of the works shared here are included in this exhibition. For Lewis, his work on paper was equal in importance to his work on canvas or board. Many of the same motifs and techniques appear in both categories, including figure-like glyphs, orbs and circles, and especially, atmospheric color.
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