Norman Lewis in the studio
Budd Estate of Norman W. Lewis; courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, N.Y.

Toward the end of his life in 1972, African-American artist Norman Lewis wrote an eye-catching pitch to a New York gallerist: “I have read that you have not stopped discovering talent and helping artists. Your valuable assistance is needed—I have talent … ”

That Lewis felt the need to be “discovered” so late in his career is perhaps a reflection of his own unmet expectations. More likely, a late-career effort to be soundly acknowledged among New York School painters by joining the stable of a gallery owner who famously promoted them. An abstract expressionist painter who had also worked with social-realist themes, Lewis was hardly a new talent. While not as popularly known as some of his black contemporaries—Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence—Lewis produced a broad collection of work, which is now the subject of an exhibit in Philadelphia.

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Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” on view through April 3 at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, hopes to enshrine Lewis within the annals of American art history. This first-ever comprehensive exhibition of his work is intended to bring recognition and knowledge about the artist to a broad audience and burnish a legacy that many believe warrants a more favorable critical reception.

“Procession” includes approximately 90 paintings and drawings organized around six major themes—In the City; Visual Sound; Rhythm of Nature; Ritual; Civil Rights; Summation—each corresponding to major phases in the artist’s career that often overlap or intersect aesthetically.

Ruth Fine, curator of the exhibition, makes no bones about Lewis’ artistic gifts and vision, cautioning, however, that attempts to define or categorize Lewis’ art with any single label—social realist, abstract expressionist, Black Arts Movement—misses the breadth of his aesthetic accomplishment.

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Among Lewis’ own musings about the nature of painting, we may find markers to garner insight about his artistic intent throughout a multifaceted career: “ … In any great picture you will find a whole system of values, some scientific, some formal, some spiritual[.] The artist assembles, accumulates and composes in a material medium a number of desires, intentions and conditions received from all points of his mind and being …”

The mature Lewis, especially in his Rhythm of Nature and Summation series, can be seen to explore transcendental aspects of nature while embracing and translating his specific context through universalist meanings and sensations. In other words, he eschews realist protest art in an era rife with it.

Born in Harlem in 1909 to parents from Bermuda, Lewis lived and worked in New York most of his life. He focused on figurative and figurative abstract work with social and jazz themes in the 1930s and early 1940s and transitioned to more nonobjective work in the late 1940s. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he restricted his palette to the color black for a series of paintings.

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At the end of the 1960s, Lewis founded an art gallery, Cinque Gallery, with Bearden and others, and he taught at the Arts Students League of New York throughout the 1970s. He died largely unknown in 1979, though, as the exhaustive catalog accompanying this exhibition explains, he had been actively shown throughout his life and was not unknown among the art-world cognoscenti.

The Wanderer (Johnny), 1933

This social-realist work set during the Great Depression exhibits Lewis’ developing sensibility as a colorist and his exploration of light. Completely obscuring the face of the subject adds to the collective presence or archetype of the homeless and hungry wanderers of this era.

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This painting received honorable mention and an award of $10 in 1934 in the “Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts, Work of the Pupils in the New York City Free Adult Art Schools,” sponsored by the education department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Hep Cats, 1943

With blended elements of abstraction and realism, “the gaze” becomes the unifying focal point of this work. The streetwise gaze of male onlookers and the attuned, but straightforward, gaze of the passing woman hold our attention. We recognize echoes of 1940s Harlem here in hats, ties, pocket handkerchiefs, shoes, hairstyles and varied complexions of these figures—recalling the zoot suit, swing and hep cats of a vibrant, uptown crowd.

Carnivale del Sol, 1962

After traveling in Europe and North Africa in 1957, Lewis made a series of works, like this one, that evoke parades or carnivals he witnessed on his travels and in the streets of New York City. The serpentine fluidity of abstracted figures in these works and the high key colors represent exuberance and connect to a more universal human experience of celebration.

Alabama, 1960

In 1963 Lewis co-founded Spiral, a group of African-American artists in New York who explored how they might contribute to the civil rights movement. The interplay between black and white in this work is thought to align with the artist’s 1968 comment: “There are white and black people who feel a togetherness so that you can’t tell who is white and who is black.” Lewis grappled with the role of art in activism through much of the civil rights era.

Exodus, 1972

In October 1967, Lewis moved to a spacious loft in lower Manhattan after having spent most of his life in Harlem. The move facilitated exploration of familiar themes such as processions, nature and civil rights in large-scale formats. The peripatetic movement, delicate and bold calligraphic line, and abstracted biomorphic shapes in prior works are projected to life-size proportions in this summation phase of the artist’s life.

Untitled (Seachange), 1976

Though situated in an urban metropolis throughout his life, Lewis frequently communed with transcendental aspects of nature, often translating his perceptions and senses into pictures such as Seachange. Here, viewers are plunged into a sensate experience with viscous atmosphere and weighty motions of the sea that are subtly shifted by Lewis’ gradation of color and form.

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John Welch, Ph.D., who lives in Philadelphia, is an associate editor and contributing writer for the International Review of African American Art at Hampton University, and is a former art-museum education director and manager.