“…the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.”—Norman Lewis
Much of the work of African American artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979) embodies the aesthetic
ideals of abstract expressionism; it also happens to be socially conscious. Currently, he is still vastly underestimated as an abstract painter and should not have his life’s work reduced to merely political art.
Norman Lewis was born in New York City. Growing up there at the turn of the century gave him a keen awareness of racial inequality that shadowed his life from an early age. Yet when he became a painter, he used abstract expressionism as a tool to broaden the depiction of the black experience, not to limit it. Over the course of his career, Lewis was one of the few African American painters to be recognized early on in the abstract expressionist movement of the 40s and 50s. After starting his career in social realism, he turned to abstract expressionism, a form that allowed him greater flexibility to express something deeply felt and known about the black experience. With this shift, from the figurative to the abstract, the literal to the metaphorical, he found artistic freedom.
He is credited with forming The Spiral Collective, a group of artists and writers who focused on art as a method to address racial inequality. In addition to this, Lewis participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Poignant, racially inflected paintings like American Totem (1960) and Confrontation (1971), make it tempting to view all of his painting through the lens of social change.
The magnificent Untitled is an oil painting dating to 1973. It likely once had a title and associated writing, but these seem to have been lost somewhere in the mists of time. No matter: Untitled is part of the Yale Art Gallery’s permanent collection and with good reason.
In Untitled, reds and grays dominate the other paler strokes and shades. So lush and so textural are Lewis’ brush strokes in this master work made toward the culmination of his career that it is difficult to see which color was layered onto the canvas first as a base for the other.
Given Lewis’ identification with black causes and his personal history in the Civil Rights Movement from the previous decade, it is possible to make political meaning out of this elegantly aestheticized painting. The panicked white cubes, swirling circles, and jutting rectangles throughout the frame may be interpreted as the bodies and hoods of KKK members. These white shapes suggest a sense of order amidst the chaos with the red shadows that fall across the canvas looking like part of an approaching red wave.
Meanwhile, the red and white cubist shapes shift chaotically. Thick, layered strokes of grey wash down over the center of the canvas as heavy red plumes climb up from the bottom. In the top left corner, a blackening hue butts up against bright, blood red. Both colors soften slightly where they meet at the center; a rich maroon infuses the right third.
Untitled is one of Lewis’ most provocative pieces, coming near the end of his remarkable 45-year career. Norman Lewis painted with deep emotion and wild activity. He managed to balance shifting tinctures, opacities, and brush strokes with the right amount of dynamism.
Choose your cultural theory and take a long, hard look. Lewis leaned into black abstract expressionism because of its transcendent capacity for aesthetic freedom and universal emotion. Whether interpreted as smoke or city pavement, blood or fire, Klansmen or city lights, Untitled is visceral and hauntingly unforgettable.
Untitled, currently on view at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT
Writing by Charles Moore