Norman Lewis, American Totem, 1960, oil on canvas, 74 × 45".

Norman Lewis, American Totem, 1960, oil on canvas, 74 × 45".

Norman Lewis

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum

Norman Lewis, American Totem, 1960, oil on canvas, 74 × 45".

“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” is the first comprehensive museum retrospective of the work of the noted African American modernist. Curated by Ruth Fine, the exhibition, organized according to six chronological themes, brings together ninety-five paintings and works on paper spanning five decades. Lewis’s earliest works demonstrate an observational social realism that focused on the denizens and street life of Harlem, where the artist lived and worked for most of his life. Experiments with Cubist fragmentation and Surrealist automatism led him to gradually decouple line from color, using both in a less disciplined and descriptive and more lyrical and expressive manner. By the mid-1940s, Lewis’s subjects had begun to disintegrate into flat compositions of restless lines, incidental shapes, and unruly colors, driven by the impulsive improvisations of jazz. In Roller Coaster, 1946—a small watercolor, ink, and crayon work on board—a dense snarl of frenzied abstract black lines interwoven with shades of red, yellow, and gray push up against the edges of the frame, conveying the sensations of a rollicking fairground ride.

Lewis was heavily influenced by nature, and much of his work from the 1950s and ’60s supplants movement with mood and atmosphere. Washes of almost monochromatic oil blur the edges of the linear subjects of these studies, enveloping them in sublime, foggy grounds. Yet Lewis was simultaneously fascinated with the ways in which collectivities gathered and moved through urban space, and he translated the energy of such celebrations and processions into compositions populated with what he called “little people,” cipher-like marks, sometimes definitively figurative, other times more abstract, almost calligraphic. These marks congregate in snaking lines, loose circles, and amorphous groupings, all floating in fields of nebulous color. Lewis was the son of West Indian immigrants, and the annual Caribbean Labor Day festival and other similar rituals of community were important inspirations for his work during this period.

As the call for racial equality became more urgent in the 1960s, Lewis adapted this visual language to represent political gatherings on both sides of the battle—from civil rights marches to Ku Klux Klan rallies. Although he insisted that his work was first and foremost informed by aesthetic concerns, paintings like American Totem and Alabama, both 1960, featuring pointedly reduced palettes of black and white, suggest an overt political engagement. In 1967, Lewis moved to a loft in downtown Manhattan, which allowed him to work on a larger scale, and the final group of paintings in this show, expansive in size and color, are triumphant. Familiar techniques and motifs reappear but seem to transcend representational concerns—both aesthetic and political—of the real world. In Seachange, 1975, an incandescent band of interlocking curves and discs charges out of an inky blue void, suggesting a churning that is both oceanic and cosmic.

Pitched between the Harlem Renaissance’s imperative toward positive representations of “the Negro” and the mainstream postwar avant-garde’s embrace of total abstraction, Lewis was alone among his black peers in committing, at least ideologically, to the latter and by 1950 was firmly part of the wider circle of Abstract Expressionists. Committing aesthetically seems to have been somewhat trickier. Spanning his long career, this exhibition reveals Lewis’s many shifting styles; the weight of representation, always a heavier burden for a marginal/minority subject, seems to have continued to haunt his abstractions as he experimented with different strategies to syncretize his opposing interests. This formal eclecticism, an apparent lack of a signature, has been used by mainstream critics to casually dismiss the artist’s considerable talent and achievement, relegating him to Abstract Expressionism’s “second tier” and suggesting that his art-historical relevance is merely a consequence of his race. However, as art historian Ann Eden Gibson has argued, such eclecticism might indicate a structural lack of access, due to race, to the critical support needed to turn an aesthetic experiment into a canonical style (which Greenberg provided for Pollock). By presenting an expansive overview of Lewis’s prodigious output, “Procession” forces us to look beyond Abstract Expressionism as the sole criterion for his canonization. That avant-garde moment turns out to have been just one of the many associations and allegiances the artist negotiated as a black man in the shifting political, cultural, and aesthetic terrain of twentieth-century America. This exhibition asks us, instead, to consider his rightful place in the broader canon of American art.

Murtaza Vali