March on Washington, 1965
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center
Like many American artists of his generation, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) began with social realism in the 1930’s and switched to Abstract Expression after the war. As the artist once wrote “the development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers by an emphasis on social conflict – the content of creative painting develops automatically with the choice of forms and colors, for the combination of composition and color is the content.. “ Yet this retrospective serves best as a chronicle of social conflict. “Police Beating” (1943) is the most compelling image in the show, and not just because the subject is as relevant as ever. Taking an aerial view, as he would throughout his career, Lewis presents a fallen black man beaten bloody by a white cop while another white man grins and a third stops to take a look. It ironically meshes horrific subject matter with the pleasant color graphics of a Sunday newspaper’s comic strip.
Apparently it was Post-war Jazz that inspired Lewis to work with Abstract Expression. Be-Bop was the most dynamic eruption of spontaneous improvisation America had ever seen, and it was born in Lewis’s African American community of New York. Obviously Lewis identified with the musicians who stood up on stage and blew with all the pent up emotion they could muster. His paintings share the intensity of great jazz solos, but his compositions are not especially melodic, pursuing diversity of mark making more than unity of design. They are not appealing, but once you enter them, the possibility for exploration among the details seems endless.
Among other painters of the period, Lewis drew closer to the delicate ambivalence of Wolfgang Paalen than the heroic display of Gorky or DeKooning. Paalen had introduced a technique of fumage (candle smoke ) to create the kind of blurry, nebulous form that Lewis would use in contrast to the sharp edges and calligraphic marks that straddle the threshold of recognizability. As suggested by the title of one of his pieces from 1948, “Rhododendrons in Winter”, many of his pieces from that time depict a kind of somber, resilient faith and melancholy defiance.
But his spirit was raised, in both anger and hope, as he entered the 1960’s and the quickening of the Civil Rights Movement. The strongest piece from this period is “American Totem” of 1960. It’s title recalls a famous essay by Paalen (“Totem Art”, 1943) while its white on black image resembles the hooded garb of the Klu Klux Klan. As history progressed, Lewis’s field of expressive marks began to resemble crowds and processions of people on the march. Eventually his gatherings were clearly celebratory, as in “New World Acoming” (1971) and “Aurora Borealis” (1976)
Outside the context of African American history, the paintings of Norman Lewis are well made, but not exceptional. His talents lay more with calligraphy. As he once wrote: “The whole thing in a sense became calligraphy, which made me pay more attention to Chinese Art--- everybody going someplace and nobody getting anywhere” That’s a good description of any art practice that focuses on discrete elements of detail. Lewis’s details are comparable to the Chinese characters of the great 11th Century calligrapher, Su Shi. And his work is all the more remarkable for having originated from his own life rather than a tradition that was already a thousand years old.
Police Beating, 1943
Jazz Musicians, 1947
Too Much Aspiration, 1947
Rhododendrons in Winter, 1948
American Totem, 1960
Aurora Borealis, 1976
Aurora Borealis (detail)
Su Shi, "Cold Food Observance" (detail), (1084-1086)
Regarding other reviews of this show:
Stan Mir reviewed the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for Hyperallergic. He questions why Lewis has never been included in surveys of Abstract Expressionism, even though he was friends with Ad Reinhardt and was photographed with some of the other players. Apparently he has not noticed that Lewis' paintings look very different. Not every abstract and expressive painting made in that time and place belongs to the New York school.
Stephen F. Eisenman reviewed the Chicago Cultural Center show for New City. He has picked up the melancholy mood of Lewis' work from the forties but apparently missed the celebratory works from the 1960's and 1970's.