New York

Norman Lewis

Although Norman Lewis (1909–79) was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, his contribution to the New York School has largely been forgotten. His recent rediscovery, however, has begun to rectify this state of affairs and to reveal how the African-American artist forged a unique path within a normatively white movement. This modest show of sixteen works on paper from 1945 to 1975, entitled “Intuitive Markings,” could only hint at Lewis’s stylistic range, but it nevertheless confirmed that his artistic preoccupations reflected an abiding need to represent the African-American experience as much as to engage abstraction and formalist innovation.

As an artist schooled in naturalism, Lewis came out of the circle surrounding sculptor Augusta Savage during the late Harlem Renaissance and struggled to balance the social imperatives of his milieu with the prevailing formalist decrees of the art world. “The development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers from such emphasis [on social conflict],” rendering it “merely another form of illustration,” he wrote in 1949. If Lewis never completely eclipsed the social realist roots evident in his work of the late ’30s and early ’40s, he gradually challenged them through the language of abstraction. Thus Lewis began to submerge his characters in an overriding pattern, as in an untitled work of 1945, in which a vestigial figure seems caught in an overlay of rectilinear cages—perhaps a metaphor for the artist’s own conflicted situation. In other works, a diverse group of characters are united within a particular formalist vocabulary. In Frolic, ca. 1958, for example, a host of fashionable and colorful figures gleaned from Harlem street life merge into a riotous mass of striated lines, as Lewis plays the language of social commentary against one of linear abstraction.

This coexistence of representation and abstraction is perhaps nowhere more poignant than in Limits, 1954, in which darkly shadowed crosses spread across a light beige ground. Formally this work could be read as anything from an illusionistic version of Lucio Fontana’s torn canvases to the blurred forms of distant stars pulsating in the darkening haze of a summer night. But something more politically resonant is going on: The linear cruciforms gradually become a harrowing image of welts and scars, the aftermath of a slave whipping. This social content pierces Lewis’s carefully orchestrated field of forms and colors.

Although his fellow AbExers shared a common interest in Jung, it is hard to consider Lewis’s achievement as emerging from any sea of universal symbolism. His subtle suspension of form and content is scarcely the product of intuition alone. Unity and division, cohesion and dissipation, all dynamic conditions of color harmony and dissonance and of static versus vibrant composition—these are the conditions that Lewis employed in his complexly personal (socially conscious) aesthetic purpose. Along with addressing the transcendent subject matter of the American Abstract Artists with whom he exhibited, Lewis continued throughout his oeuvre to attenuate his own presence in the world, never forgetting the particulars of the African-American experience—embodied by the narratives of urban families and workers—that governed his earlier realist style.

Mason Klein