In many ways, Norman Wilfred fell headfirst into the Harlem Renaissance, and consequentially the movements and changes happening in the New York art scene thereafter. Although he originally wanted to create art separately from the social and political movements that were happening around him, his inability to do so as an African American artist resulted in his unique way of seeing and expressing the world around him.
Lewis’ art evolved from the bold shapes of social realism to a more abstract perspective. Today, he is remembered for being a prominent member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, and his work is most known for dualism in both the message and the delivery.
As an artist practicing between the 1930s and 1960s in one of the largest cultural hubs in the United States, Norman Lewis inevitably used his art to express the struggles faced by Black Americans at that time. However, it was his initial aversion to merging the two that developed into the abstract way in which he would address the hardships faced the communities around him.
Born and Bred in Harlem
Norman Wilfred Lewis was born in Harlem, New York, on July 23, 1909. His father had been a fisherman and his mother a bakery owner and domestic worker, and they had both immigrated to the states from Bermuda. Norman was the middle child of their three boys. An interest in the arts ran through their blood, and it first take over his older brother Saul, leading him to a life of playing jazz music with notable musicians in the city.
Due to a lack of resources at the public schools he attended coupled with the focus on his older brother’s talents, Lewis’ talents weren’t nurtured much as a child. However, he took it upon himself to begin studying art as a young man, and his interests and passions pushed him to further educate himself through books.
Branching Out as a Young Man
At age 20, Lewis began traveling to places like South America and the Caribbean while working as an ocean freighter and a seaman. He returned three years later and quickly met the influential artist Augusta Savage while working as a textile and garment presser in a tailor’s studio that was situated above Savage’s art studio. This connection opened the door for Lewis to truly begin his path as an artist, and he began studying art under Savage at the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in his hometown.
Through this new network, Lewis went on to meet many other influential artists and changemakers who would become prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance. It would further introduce him to the politics within the art world and to how others were using their craft to push for change. As he was once quoted,
"...one of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any [social] change."
An Artist and a Teacher
Lewis dove head first into Harlem’s artistic community, beginning a journey that would lead him to abstract expressionism and a unique way of representing Black urban life and the struggles faced by individuals in those communities. Inspired by the teachings of Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement, Lewis got excited about African art and began studying at several museums within the city.
In 1934 Lewis joined a collection of African American artists and writers concerned with art’s role in society and called themselves the 306 Group. He also studied at the Teachers College at Columbia University as well as at the John Reed Club Art School.
The following year, he became the co-founder of the Harlem Artists Guild alongside other well-known artists such as Selma Burke and Joseph Delaney. This organization helped to foster opportunities for African American artists, with a focus on the socio-political concerns that faced them.
Upon completing his education, Lewis began teaching art at places like the Harlem Community Art Center through the Works Progress Administration. When the Administration ended in 1943, he moved on to a new community school, the George Washington Carver School, where he taught students from low-income families in Harlem. The next year, he also went on to teach art at the Thomas Jefferson School of Social Science.
Lewis never gained the same fame as some of his peers, but despite the lack of opportunities presented to him, he still managed to make a name for himself through his powerful portrayals of the movements and changes he witnessed. In fact, he became the only African American artist who had an exhibit beside some of the founding members of abstract expressionism in the US.
His first solo exhibition took place in 1949 at New York’s Willard Gallery, one of the most prestigious venues to feature abstract expression at the time. This exhibit was followed by nine more solo shows held at the gallery over the next decade. He became a prominent member of the artistic movement and continued to be recognized throughout the rest of his career.
Lewis’ work was part of the influential Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America exhibit at MoMA, and he was specially invited to have an exhibit in a show organized by the Art Institute of Chicago that represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 1956.
As a Black artist, Lewis remained somewhat of an outlier in the artistic community, but his commitment to both art and community kept him active, relevant, and recognized within the scene. He was the founding member of SPIRAL, a group of Black artists active in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. He also helped to keep youth in school through the Harlem Youth in Action until 1971, and he founded the Cinque for African American artists alongside artist Romare Bearden in 1969.
Although he didn’t remain overly political later in his career, Lewis continued teaching and creating. He focused more on the natural world and taught at the Arts Students League. He was also awarded several prestigious awards, including the NEA grant, the Mark Rothko Fellowship, and the Guggenheim Fellowship, before he unexpectedly passed away in New York in 1979.
An Evolving Artistic Style
Lewis’s artistic style evolved as he learned and grew in the field. He began his practice with figurative work after learning how to draw by tracing art books, but he went on to adopt the style of social realism that draws attention so socio-political conditions within his community.
Many of his early pieces put an emphasis on bold shapes and the fluid transition between these forms. He also dabbled in cubism and included elements of abstract expressionism.
In addition to his artistic style, he also used some unique choices as mediums. Inspired by his makeshift library of newspaper and magazine clippings, Lewis began painting on burlap bags, and he often used sand with his paint to add texture and bring a literal sense of urban grit into his pieces. Although his art would evolve into abstract expressionism, his personal struggles always kept his art anchored in the real world rather than becoming fully subjective.
One of his earlier pieces, Girl With Yellow Hat, pairs realism with early European modernism to portray a solitary African American woman sitting in thought. The form of the woman is simple, painted with bold shapes and select features that are brought forth with distinct colors. In these early days of his career, Lewis focused on portraying the black community while also demonstrating his enthusiasm surrounding new developments within art.
Lewis’ paintings were those of social realism until the early 1940s, around the end of WWII. At this point, he decided that it was not effective as a way of countering racism. He embraced abstraction to instead distance himself from the racism in much of the existing artistic language, and from the stereotypes that predominantly defined Black Americans at the time.
Abstraction allowed him to grow in his own right as an artist and led him to develop his art to serve his needs and his passions. In his 1945 painting entitled Subway, Lewis paints in a style reminiscent of Picasso, using varied patterns and contours to give an abstract portrayal of a small, racially diverse crowd waiting for the subway. He began painting in a figurative fashion, often depicting the realistic struggles of the community, such as bread lines and police brutality.
Lewis believed that the goal of an artist is development, and his new style began displaying an interest in the patterns of shared behaviors. Moving away from the confines of race, he used abstraction to begin discovering his own way of contributing to the world.
Lewis continued to dive into the abstract as he grew in his career. In fact, he became closely associated with abstract expressionism as he merged his social, economic, and political views with his evolving style. It didn’t take long before Lewis abandoned the need for define forms and instead embraced bold lines and colors to portray broader perspectives of the natural world and the community around him.
His work became characterized by a strong sense of duality, and this rang true in the beliefs and statements he was putting forth as well as in the way he chose to express them. He expressed joy alongside strife and anger, and he often used the color black and the contrast of light and dark.
In 1947, he painted Changing Moods and a Street Scene, both of which use a juxtaposition of colors and small shapes layered together to show a broad, zoomed-out perspective. He also took to conveying music through his art, as can be seen in the abstract depiction of instruments and people in his 1948 painting Jazz Band.
A similar technique can be seen in his 1955 painting Migrating Birds, for which he received a Carnegie International Award. Named “one of the most significant events of the 1955 art year” by the New York Herald-Tribune, this piece uses representation that leads into abstraction. With his use of color and short brush strokes, he creates movement and energy to represent flocks of birds taking flight in a golden sky.
In the black and white palette of his 1960 piece entitled Alabama, Lewis became much more political, using his art to make an undeniable statement about racial conflict. This piece was part of approximately a dozen pieces that made up his civil rights series, though this painting in particular stands out in the way in which it refers specifically to the struggle faced by African Americans in the state of Alabama at the time.
Although the artist’s specific intention with the picture is unclear, many have alluded to it portraying a nighttime meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. This assumption is by no means a far reach, as other paintings that came forth later in the decade more blatantly depicted the white supremacist hate group.
One of his more political paintings was Evening Rendezvous, which was an abstract portrayal of a gathering of white hooded clansman circled around a fire. As a secondary level, the blue smoke finishes of the piece by mocking the sense of patriotism defended by the terrorist group.
Several years later, Lewis painted what would become one of his most celebrated works. His 1965 portrayal of the March on Washington combined his abstract style with his growing role in political activism. Although he used bright colors in place of the dark or monotone palettes that were characteristic of much of his previous work, the bustle of the abstract crowd and the dark red tones beneath it remind us that this was likely meant to depict a protest.
Towards the end of his career, Lewis returned to more lighthearted themes. His 1974 painting Blue and Boogie utilized geometric shapes reminiscent of his early work. It uses deep blues and blacks, and the repeating circles depict sound waves pulsating outwards.
Throughout his evolving artistic career, Lewis always kept one foot in his surrounding environment while he let the abstract shapes represent the rest of the emotion surrounding each topic.
Norman Lewis was born into a time when there was no way of escaping the socio-political and socio-economic struggles faced by Black Americans. Although his passion was founded in the arts, his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance and the New York art scene throughout the mid-20th century led him to become political, to become an active participant within his community, and to be remembered to this day as an artist whose talents and commitment left a permanent mark in history.