Ruth Fine, editor: Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (University of California Press, and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015)

Part One:  In 1995, the then 87-year old African American novelist Dorothy West (1907-1998),       after a lapse of almost half a century, published her second novel, The Wedding, set on Martha’s Vineyard among an enclave of middle-class to affluent African Americans.

On the front cover of West’s novel was Girl with Yellow Hat, an early 1936 painting by Abstract Expressionist painter and artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979), the subject of a major retrospective 2015 exhibition at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the companion monograph: Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, edited by curator Ruth Fine.

The elegant Girl with Yellow Hat, with its rich colors and a composition influenced by Cubism, became the exhibition favorite of all of Norman Lewis’s paintings during his lifetime, according to Ruth Fine’s thorough introductory essay, The Spiritual in the Material, chronologically describing the development of Lewis’s work within the context of his life.

Harlem born of West Indian immigrants, Lewis from early on became an avid collector of books on art and a frequent visitor to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its exhibitions, like African Negro Art (1935), and the groundbreaking Cubism and Abstract Art (1936).

His introduction to an artist’s professional life came via African American sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962) and her Harlem Studio of Arts and Crafts – “Thank heaven for her! Because she offered me the opportunity to get started,” Lewis later told artist Romare Bearden – and recognizing Lewis’s ‘remarkable aptitude’ for teaching, Savage offered him his first teaching assignment.

Savage was right, and Lewis loved to teach, subsequently referring to himself as artist and teacher, and teaching to the end of his life. But artistically they did not see eye to eye. Lewis found that what he had learned through his self-education, his books on art, and what he had seen on his visits to MoMA, did not always agree with what Savage taught.

The New Deal’s Federal Art Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was another early influence (“It was like going to graduate school”), and Norman Lewis started as a Social Realist, painting – and protesting – the calamities in the life of many poor black people: poor housing, evictions (The Dispossessed (Family), 1943), bread lines, police brutality (Police Beating – ‘untitled’, 1943), as well as depicting more positive aspects of ordinary, everyday life as in Woman Seated – ‘title unknown’ (seated and reading a book) from 1944.

(‘Untitled’ means not given a title by Lewis, ‘title unknown’ that the original title has been lost; there is no evidence that titles given works for the exhibition/monograph are Lewis’s own).

Lewis later stated that he moved away from social protest art because he never found that a painting changed attitudes, whereas a picket line could. And move he did. From 1945 and onwards he was increasingly viewed as an Abstract Expressionist painter, according to Ruth Fine.

Part Two:  In 1946 he was taken into the prestigious New York Willard Gallery, dedicated to new American and European art and open also to minority artists, where he would remain until 1965.  

And 1950 found him participating – as the only black – in the historic three-day symposium at Studio 35 in downtown New York with a group of Abstract Expressionist painters including Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt on the future of American art, one of the moderators being art historian Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of MoMA.

For the first time an American style dominated the international art world, New York replacing Paris as its center, even as Abstract Expressionism was a term covering a lot of ground. Romare Bearden called Lewis a ‘lyrical Abstract Expressionist,’ and it is as such that Norman Lewis has made a name for himself as a major African American painter of the twentieth century.

Lewis was on a quest to find ‘the spiritual in the material’ (to quote the title of Ruth Fine’s essay), taking nature and natural phenomena, cityscapes and architecture, Caribbean culture and street life, jazz and classical music, dance and ritual, as some of the ‘materials’ for his Abstract Expressionism paintings in oil, drawings and paintings on paper, prints, and other works of art.

His 1954 painting Migrating Birds, a tour-de-force of calligraphic delicacy, movement and energy, won the Popularity Prize at the 1955 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, and Cathedral (1950) made it to the American pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale.

A remarkable change back to a political content in Norman Lewis’s paintings came with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, reflected in the monograph’s title, Procession, and the magnificent cover painting March on Washington – ‘title unknown’, 1965.

‘Title unknown’, but it squares with what we know of Lewis’s life at the time: He participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he wrote ‘Letter(s) to the Editor’ on civil rights, and fellow black artists – forming the group Spiral in 1963 to discuss what should be their attitudes and commitments as Negro artists in the struggle for civil rights – picked Norman Lewis as their first president.

Several paintings are on the racist Ku Klux Klan: Rednecks (1960), Redneck Birth (1961), the ironically titled America the Beautiful (1960 – a Ku Klux Klan meeting), and Alabama (1960), showing some of his signature patterns of small figures – ‘ants’, Lewis called them – that, although abstract, are clearly human figures moving in lines of procession or circles of (ritual) movement.

Jeffrey C. Stewart in his magisterial essay: Beyond Category: Before Afrofuturism There Was Norman Lewis, writes that even a political agnostic like Lewis, fearing that (racial) categories hijack the complex meanings of art, had to realize that the Civil Rights Movement was a ‘sea chance.’

This monograph and the exhibition of close to 100 works (out of some 2.500 known works), dating from 1933 to 1978, add significantly to the serious critical attention  merited by Norman Lewis and his  pioneering Abstract Expressionism works of art.