New York

Norman Lewis

The Studio Museum in Harlem

The poignant yet somewhat quaint announced purpose of “Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946–77” is to explore the artist’s “aesthetic and metaphoric uses of black.” Of the two, “aesthetic” goes down more easily, since Lewis was more or less an Abstract Expressionist and, as with his stylistic brethren, whatever he put down on canvas was there first and foremost for aesthetic reasons—primarily those having to do with how best to make a painting in the middle years of the twentieth century. But of course it’s the “metaphorical” usage that gives the exhibition title its raison d’être, and this is where the poignancy and quaintness come in.

Lewis, you see, was an African-American artist, the only one included in those theoretical gabfests at Studio 35 called the Artists’ Sessions. Born in New York of Bermudan immigrants, he worked in his youth in the tailoring trades and also shipped out to South America as a seaman. Stateside, he tried union organizing and became an activist against racism in ’30s Harlem. He chewed the cultural fat in discussion groups with Ralph Ellison and Jacob Lawrence. Even part of his art training came through the John Reed Club Art School. How could Lewis not have deployed black metaphorically to stand as a painterly symbol for his own experience?

But black paint, used liberally in abstract paintings (almost as a field in some of Lewis’ pictures), is a far cry—as the work of the young artist Byron Kim has taught us—from the color of anybody’s skin. Nevertheless, cocurators Ann E. Gibson and Jorge Daniel Veneciano point to a couple of titles from 1960, Alabama and American Totem (the equally titularly charged America the Beautiful and Post Mortem also date from that year), as one indication that Lewis was trying to make some kind of profound racial comment with his black paintings. There’s some resemblance—unfortunately Disneyesque—between clots of white brushstrokes and Klansmen in white robes in several paintings. And Lewis did remark at one point that he had reduced his palette as a gesture of racial consciousness. But did that make him something other, essentially, than a second-tier Abstract Expressionist?

Probably not. Others among the sixty-odd works in the show are called such things as Nocturne, 1956; New Moon, 1959; No. 2, 1973; No. 6, 1973; and Seachange XIV, 1976. Moreover, they seem somehow as though they were titled, in the Abstract Expressionist tradition, after the painting was finished. And if Lewis did mean to imbue his paintings with a measure of racial content, there’s a lot of evidence that he didn’t harbor any illusion about the likelihood of their ameliorating racial problems. “Painting pictures about social conditions doesn’t change the social conditions,” Lewis says in a 1977 video. And he says it with the weary enlightenment of a man who’s been through enough to realize that you can’t dress up the passion to be an artist (or at least not an abstract painter) in the cloak of righteous social utility. Lewis, in fact, felt a little shafted from both sides because, as an artist who happened to be black, he declined—after an almost obligatory social-realist period leading up to the mid-’40s—to do “black art,” i.e., paint figurative pictures of noble, struggling African-Americans. Not that Lewis didn’t pay his dues away from the easel: he was fairly constantly a part of black artists’ groups, from those involving the likes of Hale Woodruff and Romare Bearden, to those picketing the Met’s infamous “Harlem on My Mind” show in 1969.

So, what kind of artist was Lewis? In sum, I’d say a pretty good second—tier Abstract Expressionist whose work suffered—that is, couldn’t get to where Pollock’s or Kline’s or even Motherwell’s did—because he never quite let go of imposing an a priori order, a vague premeditated design, on a kind of painting that needs to run the risk of real disorder to hit the heights. At the beginning, there was a kind of School of Paris fussiness, a constant overorchestration of little vertical shards; in the middle there were the overdetermining themes like “Rituals” and “Atmospherics”; in the end there was, oddly, too much black (just about anything looks neon/wet-boulevard/outer-space exotic when floated on a big black canvas). Although Lewis uses black in complex ways, he still never quite elevates it to Reinhardt’s mystical plane, turns it into Kline’s brutal architecture, or exploits its possibilities like Motherwell.

Artists should be remembered, however, by their best works, and in this show there are several stunners. One is Woman, 1948, a little oil on masonite no bigger than a standard glossy press photo, and done with a palette limited to red and black. It’s a little remindful of Klee, a little of early Pollock, and a little of Rothko’s and Newman’s “pictogram” pictures. But it looks like none of them, and inch for inch, it crackingly outstrips the competition. Almost a quarter century later, Lewis pulls off Triumphal, 1972, a seven-foot-tall canvas that, while a bit hokey in the composition department, contains one of the best painting passages I’ve seen in a long time. At the upper center of the painting’s glorified X arrangement, Lewis makes a few white strokes surrounded by red seem brighter than the panoply of white strokes surrounded by black elsewhere in the composition. To top it off, he uses some off-white (that is, duller) patches to make the central white units positively glow. And the accomplishment is no mere graphic stunt. It’s the metaphoric “triumph” at the center of Triumphal, and its poetry resonates outward through the rest of the canvas. Lewis may have been a metaphorist all along, and his visual reach was probably strengthened by his own racial struggles. But artistically he was, I think, after bigger game.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.