Norman Lewis, 1909-1979, an Abstract Expressionist of the first hour

The featured image is a self-portrait by Norman Lewis, 1940; oil on paper. 

Norman Lewis began to paint using abstract forms as soon as he saw the movement born.  It was 1944 or ’45 when he began to display a mature experimentation in abstract forms without, it seems, going through an immaturity.

His abstract paintings with as their subject the life of his community, his observations of nature, ritual, celebration, the life of people together, are  passionate, precise and disciplined.  They stay with you.

Norman Lewis was active in the fight for the political and economic rights of American blacks.  He was co-founder and first president of Spiral.  These were black artists in New York who wanted to figure out how to contribute to the Civil Rights movement. 

Lewis struggled with how to infuse his aesthetics with the politics of the day and finally separated the practice of the two. 

One could interpret this negatively as a comment on the artist’s view of black life as being devoid of aesthetic qualities.  But we know, from his paintings and his life, that this was not true.  One would say that Lewis fought in his life for equality and drew nourishment from his art and that this nourishment was not fed by poisonous wells.

Many of Norman Lewis’ paintings were not titled.  I imagine that this is related to the fact that his work was not shown as much (Betty Parsons!) nor bought as much as that of his peers, many of whom he knew. And that he did not think much about titles because he himself did not need titles for his work.

Most striking is the variety of  forms and patterns used; the fearless colors.  Even more striking than this is a pattern-making which shows layers:  the reality behind what appears; or images which appear intermittently in a field of something else; or two realities which live fluidly with each other.

A wonderful and heartening body of work by a man not born to art but who invoked his vocation despite the odds.  Nor did he reap the rewards earned by several of his peers, members of the majority population now in a pantheon from which they will never be dislodged.  (Nor should they be!). 

 Which Norman Lewis has joined, in my mind.


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Composition 1, 1945. Oil on canvas.

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Architectural Abstraction; 1945; oil, watercolour and ink on paper

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Title Unknown; 1946; oil on canvas



Countless Upward; and detail; 1959; crayon, ink and watercolour on paper

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Birds; 1950; oil on canvas

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France-terrace; oil on paper; 1960

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Untitled, oil and pastel on paper; 1964

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detail of Night Walk; oil on canvas; 1956

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Title unknown (Procession); 1949; oil on canvas

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Congregation; 1950; watercolour, crayon and ink on coated fiberboard

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detail of a painting whose title is not known; 1960; oil on canvas


Winter branches; ink on paper; 1956

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detail of Rhododendrons in winter; 1948; oil on canvas

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Carnivale del Sol; oil on canvas; 1962

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Carnivale II, 1962; oil on canvas

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Untitled (Klu Klux Klan); 1960; oil on paper

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Alabama; 1960; oil on canvas


Title unknown (Alabama); 1967; oil on canvas.

Lewis’ black-and-white paintings are about race. The one immediately above is and is not a weapon.

Its sharpness and colours brought to my mind a painting, Reconciliation Elegy,  by Robert Motherwell – at his height – commissioned by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC for its 1978 opening of the East Building.  Robert Motherwell was  seven years older than Norman Lewis. 

Robert Motherwell said he was trying to show the burden of an individual’s life in the midst of the architectural splendor of the East Wing.  No sharpness and no hint of a weapon.

(I also read many years ago that it was about the Spanish Republic). 

 Both paintings were gifts to the National Gallery by the Collectors Committee.  Interesting enough. 

They are linked in my mind because of their opposite qualities.  Reconciliation Elegy is all-encompassing, unthreatening,  striving from the middle to reach both edges of the canvas. A vast cloud in a pristine white environment finding and mastering its place. It envelops you and you do not feel frightened.  I saw a photo of the artist at work on this painting.  The canvas was on the floor and the artist was its master swaying and moving above it.

No easy reconciliation for Norman Lewis, whose painting of a police beating is in the exhibition and a prior blog.  Norman Lewis’ black-and-white paintings are sharp, lonely, and both frightened and frightening.

Except that Lewis noted this marvelous thing:  ” There are white and black people who feel a togetherness so that you can’t tell who is white and who is black.” 

And one of his final paintings, below, is Triumphal, 1972:  black and white but also the dull red which blood turns when it is exposed to the air (spilled); and the bright red of conflict and triumph. 

One would have to be dead not to be touched by the effort translated into this wonderful work, painting by painting. 

Beloveds, Arshile Gorky addressed his friends and colleagues in his suicide note.  Great Beloveds the Abstract Expressionists are to me and in their number Norman Lewis.  The people who expanded our lives in graphic media.


Reconciliation Elegy; 1978, Robert Motherwell, 1915-1991; acrylic on canvas.


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Title unknown (March on Washington); 1965; oil on fiberboard

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Confrontation; and detail; 1971; oil on canvas

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Triumphal; and detail; 1972; oil on canvas






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