American Totem makes you linger. The painting has been discussed at length since its acquisition by the Whitney Museum this past spring. It is one of Norman Lewis’ most iconic paintings. The canvas evokes contrast from every angle: black vs. white, sharp vs. soft, eerily still yet rife with movement and suspense. It’s beautiful, yes—and highly political. One of the artist’s “Civil Rights” paintings, the piece depicts an abstracted totem representing a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. Take a closer look, and you’ll find looser forms: a skull here, a mask there.
Norman Lewis was born in the Harlem area of New York City. Growing up there at the turn of the twentieth century. As a painter, he was determined to express his view of the black experience through his unique abstract works of art.
American Totem is a depiction of an American tragedy. The parts of the painting—the symbolism of the hood, the vacancy of the eyes—are crucial to the whole. From an American cultural studies standpoint, there is a great deal to explore.
Before reviewing American Totem in more detail, the viewer might consider Lewis’s life and career trajectory. Lewis was lauded for his striking depictions of the complexity of American society. Many consider his work as being both poetic and socially conscious. Lewis masterfully communicated his vision and gave you additional commentary: the work is complex and sometimes an explanation is necessary.
This wasn’t always the case. Lewis launched his career as a Social Realist, showcasing the inequality of poverty and racism in a blunt, straightforward manner. However, he soon stated that “painting an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions” was not an ideal agent for change, and the artist pivoted his focus accordingly.
Today he is one of the only black painters linked to the New York School of abstract expressionist artists. Inspired by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Tobey, it was around 1946 that Lewis joined this first wave of abstract expressionist artists—a group that included Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and other gestural painters. However, Lewis was deeply committed to sparking discussion around racial inequality, all while removing figures to allow the viewer to gather their own ideas behind his mastery of art: abstract.
Lewis wanted his art to speak for itself. “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,” he once revealed.
You might say that Lewis achieved this with American Totem. He completed the oil painting while transitioning from bright calligraphic forms to his “Civil Rights” series—a collection composed of stark black-and-white paintings, full of negative space, that explored a calamitous period in U.S. History.
Whitney curator David Breslin claims that American Totem features unprecedented reach and mass appeal. “Made at the height of the civil rights movement by an under-appreciated protagonist,” this work is the anchor to the museum’s selection of works 1900-1965 currently on exhibit.
In a 1976 interview, conducted for his retrospective at CUNY that year, Lewis said he painted social subjects earlier in his career because he believed it would change the way people think if they were to see what was actually happening to black folks. He later turned to abstract paintings after determining even in plain sight those images made little difference in how people felt about the subject matter.
Ultimately, while Lewis’s painting style evolved over the years, he maintained his focus on social justice throughout—a noteworthy feat that cemented Lewis as a movement unto himself. Norman Lewis has paved the way for the likes of Ed Clark, Howardena Pindell, and other black artists who aim to push past boundaries to create an artistic lane using visual art as their tool.
“The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, American Totem” continues at the Whitney Museum, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York
Writing by Charles Moore