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Norman Lewis Photo

Norman Lewis

American Painter

Born: July 23, 1909 - Harlem, New York
Died: August 27, 1979 - Harlem, New York
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"...the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture."
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Norman Lewis Signature
"...one of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any [social] change."
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Norman Lewis Signature
"When I am at work, I usually remove my state of mind from the Negro environment I live in. I paint what's inside, and like to think of it as a very personal, very individual environment. Being Negro, of course, is part of what I feel, but in expressing all of what I am artistically I find myself in a visionary world, to which 125th Street [Harlem] would prove limited and less than universal by comparison."
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Norman Lewis Signature
"...political and social aspects should not be the primary concern, aesthetic ideas should have preference."
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Norman Lewis Signature
"I have been concerned not only with my own creative and technical development but with the limitations which come under the names 'African Idiom,' 'Negro Idiom,' or 'Social Painting.'"
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Norman Lewis Signature
"I wanted to be above criticism, so that my work didn't have to be discussed in terms of the fact that I'm black."
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Norman Lewis Signature
"I used to paint Negroes being dispossessed; discrimination, and slowly I became aware of the fact that this didn't move anybody, it didn't make things better."
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Norman Lewis Signature

Summary of Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis, a leading African-American painter, was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, and he also used representational strategies to focus on black urban life and his community's struggles. Lewis's work is characterized by the duality of abstraction and representation, using both geometric and natural forms, in the depiction of both the city and natural world, and expressing both righteous anger and joyous celebration. His paintings are singled out for their linear, calligraphic lines, along with his bright, expressive palette and atmospheric effects. Unlike other Abstract Expressionists, his technique and content never wholly gave over to the subjective. Often overlooked in art history studies, there has been a renaissance of interest in Lewis's oeuvre since the 1990s.


  • Lewis ceased painting Social Realist works in the early 1940s because he found the style was not effective to counter racism. He saw abstraction as a strategy to distance himself from racial artistic language, as well as the stereotypes of his time. Abstraction proved an important means to both artistic freedom and personal discovery.
  • One marker of Lewis's work is his frequent use of the color black, which appears to predate that of his friend and fellow artist Ad Reinhardt. However, for an artist who was concerned with race and racism in America, painting during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, it's hard not to see social commentary in his choice of palette.
  • Lewis garnered important gallery representation and was involved with several key events of the Abstract Expressionist movement, this despite the racism of the art world and American segregation of the 1940s and 1950s.

Biography of Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis Photo

Norman Lewis was born in Harlem, which at the time of his birth was a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood, with few African American families, an imbalance which made him keenly aware of racial inequality at a very young age. Lewis recognized that he wanted to be an artist when just nine years old. In high school, he studied drawing and commercial design. At age 20, Lewis was employed as a seaman on a freighter and spent several years traveling about South America and the Caribbean. Upon leaving this position, he returned home to New York where he began to work, study, and, later, exhibit as an artist.

Important Art by Norman Lewis

Progression of Art

The Yellow Hat

Painted early in his career while influenced by Locke's New Negro Movement, this work's subject is a seated, isolated African-American woman captured in thought. The Yellow Hat shows Lewis's style in transition from Social Realism to abstraction. Here, the form is simplified and color and design are emphasized. Lewis subdivides the figure and ground into planar shapes of distinct colors; the yellow hat which shields the woman's face is the brightest note of color. Clearly, the artist is emulating early European modernism and the School of Paris, using these influences as a lens through which to approach Harlemites. Lewis balances this work between realism and modernism in order to both depict the black community and demonstrate his growing commitment to the art of the new. The black figure with her distinct angularity reminds us that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque also looked to African statuary as the foundation for their own work.

Oil on canvas - The Norman Lewis Collection


The Tenement

Throughout his career, the artist worked extensively with black, which intriqued him for both its formal properities and social implications. However, Lewis's Black Paintings (1946-77) were rarely given over entirely to the color black, unlike Reinhardt's later black canvases of the 1950s. Instead, black serves as sharp contrast to the bold colors Lewis has painted. Here, bright shapes are arranged in a vertical format. Once the title is known, the colored shapes reveal themselves to be windows, and the outlines of buildings become recognizable. Lewis's explorations of black enabled him to conjure images of nightime, the artist's preferred time of day. According to Joan Murray Weissman who lived with Lewis from 1946 to 1952: ''He really loved night: he loved going out at night, and he loved walking at night, and he loved the sky with stars in it, and he loved lights. He was a night kind of guy.''

Oil on canvas


Green Mist

Lewis often worked in a tall, vertical format applying bright colors along with a calligraphic black line. Here, the softness of the colors might lead one to conclude that Lewis was working with an airbrush. Instead, Lewis obtained this atmospheric glow through a technique he both devised and mastered of smudging pigment back and forth into the canvas. Through his manipulation of pigments and unique smudge effect, Lewis punctures the flatness of the picture plane so that the two-dimensional surface recedes. This opens up a figure and ground relationship between the green mist and the totem-like figures composed of lines. In so doing, the vibrancy of the energy and mass within the center of the painting is magnified.

Oil on canvas - Wadsworth Athenaeum


Migrating Birds

In 1955, Norman Lewis became the first African-American artist to receive the Carnegie International Award for this celebrated painting. The critic for the New York Herald-Tribune proclaimed Lewis's work "one of the most significant events of the 1955 art year." This work demonstrates Lewis's continued commitment to the natural world, using representation as the starting point for abstraction. Within the golden yellows which cover the canvas completely, Lewis creates a mass of movement and energy with his application of sharp, white strokes of paint which conjures up images of birds in flight. Lewis's sense of duality, the abstract and the representational, are in complete balance in this prized painting. The sensation is that of multitudes of birds taking flight in the blazing sun and sky.

Oil on canvas - Carnegie Institutue


Harlem Courtyard

Large totemic elements give way to human figures which are shown crowded together. Lewis has again woven together abstract elements with social implications, namely, the inner city and its crowded environment. His use of earthen tones, coupled with his use of descriptive titles, suggest humans as well as concrete surfaces and buildings, which are all blended together. Here, we sense the density of public life and spaces within America's leading black community. While other modernists traveled uptown to Harlem to seek out jazz music and visual inspiration, Lewis was painting his own neighborhood which he depicted as pulsating with life.

Oil on canvas - The Collection of Eric Robertson


Evening Rendezvous

Despite Lewis's disavowl of protest paintings and Social Realism, the artist continued to confront social issues throughout his career - although mediated through Abstract Expressionism. Here is a forceful political painting which directly attacks American racism. The abstract, hooded white figures which emerge from the greyish background are members of the hateful Ku Klu Klan, who gather around a bonfire at center. Blue smoke evaporates, or distills the white cloaked figures at top. The uniting of the red, white, and blue belittles the patroitism which the KKK claimed to represent.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum


Untitled (Alabama)

Lewis has divided his all-black background into a shard or triangle at left, and a rectangular band at right. Although non-representational, the white triangular shapes painted within the larger painted area evoke the hooded Ku Klux Klan. Lewis deftly plays with white and black, trying to find space for political and social commentary on the Civil Rights Movement within the language of Abstract Expressionism. The assured, aggressive nature of his brushstrokes drives home the importance of this subject. In addition to being referred to as Lewis's black paintings, works such as this were called his "processional works" because they portray masses of figures in movement which vary from the celebratory to the menacing - such as portrayed here.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Blue and Boogie

In the last years of his life and career, Lewis returned to vibrant and hard edge painting such as above. The repetition of circles suggests the pulsating sounds of music - here, blues, jazz, and bebop - filling the night air.

Oil on canvas - The Studio Museum in Harlem

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Norman Lewis
Influenced by Artist
  • Herbert Gentry
    Herbert Gentry
  • Charles White
    Charles White
  • Elizabeth Catlett
    Elizabeth Catlett
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Norman Lewis Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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