Born in Harlem in 1909 to Bermudan immigrants, Norman Lewis was a prominent African American artist celebrated for his lively abstractions inspired by nature and jazz as well as for his commitment to social justice, Civil Rights, and the Harlem community. Alongside painter Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden (all artists in the Artists of Harlem Fund), Lewis played a central role in the Harlem Renaissance, an early twentieth-century explosion of African American art, music, and literature.
Although he was part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell, Lewis’s contributions to the movement went largely unrecognized until recently, when his career has been revisited as part of a larger effort to diversify the American canon. Before his death in 1979, Lewis himself recognized that audiences were not yet prepared to accept him, saying: “I think it’s going to take about thirty years, maybe forty, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work.” In 2015, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts mounted the artist’s first full-scale retrospective, “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” to great acclaim.
A recent market rise
Since 2011, the average price of a work by Lewis has grown at a compound 40.3% annually, a remarkable rate which reflects the market’s interest in formerly little-known artists from minority backgrounds. Lewis’s current auction record was set in 2019, when his 1962 painting Ritual was acquired from Sotheby’s for $2,780,000, almost 2.5x its expected sale price of $700,000–$1,000,000.
In 2015, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, Anne Temkin, acknowledged a “pretty systemic overlooking” of black artists from the twentieth century, one that has only recently begun to be rectified. With Lewis’ artworks in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the ever-increasing desire to celebrate previously ignored artistic perspectives, Lewis’s star will continue to rise.
Lewis’s life, art, and activism
Lewis’s interest in art began in high school. Denied access to fine art training, he instead studied commercial art and design. At twenty years old, Lewis joined the merchant marine and spent three years aboard a freighter, traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean. Upon his return to Harlem, the artist became acquainted with sculptor Augusta Savage, who provided him with a free studio space at the Harlem Community Art Center. During this early phase of his career, Lewis painted in a figurative, social realist style, depicting neighborhood sights and moments of social strife. In 1934, alongside Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, he joined the 306 Group, a collective of African American artists who met at Charles Alston’s home studio on West 141st to discuss politics, learn new creative techniques, and socialize.
Lewis’s representational style began to fall away in the 1940s, replaced by restless abstract linework and loose suggestions of the figure. Having lost faith in social realism following the brutality of World War II and in the wake of New York’s increasing racial segregation, Lewis began to believe that “an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions” could not effect change. All the while, he educated low-income children in art at various public schools in Harlem. In 1950, he was the only African American artist who attended the meetings at Studio 35 on East Eighth Street that would define the parameters of Abstract Expressionism. A year later, he participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America,” another foundational event in the movement’s history.
As cries for racial equality grew louder in the 1960s, Lewis responded to the social movement in his paintings, which began to visually reference Civil Rights marches as well as racist rallies. In the wake of the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis came together with other black artists to form a group called Spiral, a space where they could discuss the intersection of art and politics. In 1969, he actively protested the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Harlem On My Mind” due to the institution’s failure to include black artists while planning the show.
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