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Norman Lewis, American Totem, 1960. Photo: Norman Lewis / Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.

Whitney Museum Acquires Painting by African American Modernist Norman Lewis

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York announced that it has acquired Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis’s American Totem, 1960, one of his most iconic paintings. Born in Harlem, Lewis (1909–1979)—one of the few African American artists associated with the New York School—was a founding member of Spiral, a group concerned with art’s ability to engage questions of racial inequality that included Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff.

The artist made American Totem nearly a decade after his first solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1949 as part of a series of black-and-white paintings that explored the emotional and psychic impact of the civil rights movement. While the totem in the painting evokes a hooded member of the KKK, the figure itself is composed of a multitude of forms resembling apparitions, skulls, and masks. Museum director Adam D. Weinberg called the work “one of Lewis’s most important paintings.”

Curator and art historian Ruth Fine—who curated “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” (2015), the first comprehensive museum overview of the artist’s work, which was staged at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and the Chicago Cultural Center—noted: “The paintings and drawings that are grouped as Norman Lewis’s civil rights works are among the most provocative and charged of their period, brilliantly melding the artist’s political and aesthetic concerns. It is especially fitting that the Whitney, New York’s great museum of American art, now owns American Totem, among the earliest of these canvases and an icon of the twentieth (and perhaps the twenty-first) century.”

American Totem is the first painting by Lewis to be acquired by the Whitney. The work will be featured in an exhibition dedicated to the artists of the New York School, alongside paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, and Mark Rothko, among others, that will open on June 28.

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