“I’m sure if I do succeed in painting the black experience, I won’t recognize it myself.”
The African-American artist Norman Lewis is arguably best known for not being as well-known as he should be. For as the one black artist amongst the New York Abstract Expressionists who the Guardian Newspaper has described as “a key figure in abstract expressionism” Lewis has never gained the recognition accorded his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning.
Growing up in the early years of the 20th Century in the then white New York neighborhood of Harlem Lewis had his first experiences of racial prejudice.
As he told a 1968 Smithsonian Oral History “After high school suddenly I found with all my ability that I couldn't get a job as they [the white students] could get a job after school. And slowly it dawns on you; it is a kind of rude awakening that you are not part of this system.”
Throughout his career Lewis was unable to support himself from his art and worked at a variety of jobs.
“Yes, I teach. I have driven a taxi, I have been an elevator operator, I have been a pants presser, I have washed floors, I have been a cook, I have been a seaman, I have sewed dresses, I have sustained myself in the whatever of the moment that has been necessary to just exist,” he has said.
Essentially self-trained Lewis commenced his artistic life as a figurative artist with a social realist inclination.
About which the New York Times’ art critic Barry Schwabsky wrote “Lewis's vision of the downtrodden poor would hardly have been effective as social protest art... The figures turn inward, folding in on themselves rather than confronting the viewer or energetically pressing out against the limits of their world, the picture frame.”
It’s a weakness in his work of that time that Lewis admits to which was driven by his social activism. Which as an African-American he experienced differently to his contemporaries of European heritage.
As he has said “I think amongst themselves that as white artists--I make this distinction because there is a difference between being white and black which is quite obvious--their problems and my own never coincided despite the fact that we were fighting for, say, a better world, like there was the boycott on Japan and we felt the necessity to picket… I mean their harassment and being bothered by the police was entirely different from the black cat being beaten by the police. It almost seems that the police had more license to beat you up despite the fact that there is a sit-in the building or something like that. The hostility, they almost singled you out to beat you up.”
Concurrently in the 1940’s Lewis like his contemporaries was struggling to find the way forward from cubism that would result in Abstract Expressionism. And whilst some art historians see Abstract Expressionism as a rejection of the political after the horrors of World War II, Lewis’ motivation was in part somewhat closer to home.
And with hindsight Lewis remarked in 1977 “"Painting pictures about social conditions doesn't change the social conditions."
But as he has said about his journey into Abstract Expression “I wondered what really was creation… And the thing that I noticed was the individuality and how Matisse saw certain things, how Picasso saw and the whole--really, after one learns the history it is to see what one can contribute as beautiful… It is discovering what one can do in paint, what one can achieve, what visually excites you and what you want to see that hasn't been done.”
The first comprehensive museum overview of his work Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts until the 3 of April 2016.