While today Norman Lewis is regarded as one of the finest mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist painters, he was, throughout his career and for many years thereafter, conspicuously left out of the modernist canon. Despite such truly modern, nonobjective works as Untitled, which appears to...
While today Norman Lewis is regarded as one of the finest mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist painters, he was, throughout his career and for many years thereafter, conspicuously left out of the modernist canon. Despite such truly modern, nonobjective works as Untitled, which appears to resist biographical readings with its apparent abstractness, contemporary critics and scholars seemed unable to look past Lewis’s race when considering his art. This must have been frustrating for Lewis, who, like any committed Abstract Expressionist, felt that in art, “political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; [a]esthetic ideas should have preference.”  Despite his formal approach, however, Lewis was very much invested in the political and social advancement of his fellow African Americans. Growing up in New York City’s Harlem during the 1910s and 1920s, and beginning his career in the 1930s, Lewis came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, a time that saw unparalleled attention paid to the artistic output of the black community. Lewis’s artistic development took place during an era of heightened political awareness, with debates surrounding black identity. While he may have stated a belief in a separation between art and politics, Lewis’s career would demonstrate a continual interest in the intersection of these two worlds. This merging of interests began with Lewis’s employment by the Federal Art Program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), followed by his membership to the New York City–based 306 Group, an organization of artists and writers promoting a distinctive black American art. Finally, in 1963, Lewis was a founder of Spiral, a black artists’ collective concerned with African American rights. Thus it seemed that Lewis’s art would always, in some way or another, be political. Untitled may be an exemplary Abstract Expressionist work in its formal qualities (and with its deliberately generic title), but it is nonetheless informed by the political and social environment in which it was created. Made during the height of the civil rights movement, a cause in which Lewis was significantly involved, certain formal elements of Untitled may reference more subjective topics. While it makes use of strong color, the canvas can still be considered one of Lewis’s “black” paintings—works he created in the mid-1940s and after, in which he experimented heavily with black pigment. Lewis’s treatment of this pigment responds to the general notion of black as the absence of color (or light) and to its traditionally ancillary role within a painting (used, for example, to alter the shade of a color). Lewis, along with New York School contemporaries like Robert Motherwell [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Motherwell] and Franz Kline [1973.636], pioneered a trend in which black was imagined as a color in its own right. For Lewis in particular, this reconceptualizing of black as a dynamic pigment instead of the binary “opposite” of white may have also served as a metaphor for the African American struggle for equality. This social reference is further supported by the composition of Untitled, which features black, colorfully accented groupings of vertical forms passing through a deep, atmospheric pinkish purple. Scholars today consider Untitled to be one of Lewis’s “ritual” paintings, in which these masses of black figures can be read as representative of Lewis’s fascination with the ritual-like activity of street gatherings (which, in the 1960s, often had political agendas). Lewis’s characteristic use of thin, dry brushwork gives this piece a mysterious but seductive depth and dimension that draws the viewer in and leaves ample room for interpretation. Certainly the painting’s first owners, the Honorable Edward R. Dudley, the first African American to run for public office in New York State, and his wife Rae, an artist, found it both captivating and inspiring, having included it in their impressive collection of great modernist works. The composition remained in the Dudleys’ collection until it came on the market in 2008. Notes 1. Lewis quoted in Jeanne Siegel, “Why Spiral?,” ArtNews 65, no. 5 (September 1966): 49. Rachel Tolano
Signed in oil, lower right
About 1964, the artist. Judge and Mrs. Edward R. Dudley, N. Y. October 7, 2008, African-American Fine Art Sale #2156, Swann Galleries, N.Y., lot 33, to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 17, 2008)
Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection and Emily L. Ainsley Fund