Norman W. Lewis (1909-1979) was a Black American painter, of Bermudan descent, associated with the Harlem Renaissance and the Abstract Expressionist movement. Lewis was a member of the tight-knit Harlem artistic community, known as the 306 Group, which included prominent African American artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Lewis’ early work (1933-1940) has been described as Social Realism; figural scenes focusing on the struggles of Harlem’s black urban community. During this period, Lewis’ paintings frequently depicted bread lines, evictions, and episodes of police brutality.
In the early 1940s, Lewis began to transition away from Social Realism, finding Abstraction to be a more effective art form for countering the racial prejudices of his generation. Lewis wanted to break free from the ethnic stereotypes developing around African American art and open the door for black artists seeking to expand into other forms of expression. The transition to Abstraction proved to be an important tool for both, his artistic creativity and intellectual developement.
By the mid-1940s, Lewis had begun gaining exposure within New York’s abstract expressionist art community. In 1949 New York’s Willard Gallery, which was considered one of the most prestigious commercial venues for abstract expressionism, hosted Lewis’ first solo exhibition. The works exhibited highlighted his signature calligraphic line form, featuring figural groups engaged in frenetic movement and energy. The gallery went on to provide Lewis nine additional solo exhibits over the next decade and managed his career until 1964.
In 1950, Lewis was the sole African-American participant in the famous, closed-door symposium at Studio 35 which ambitiously set out to define the abstract art movement. The following year, MoMA included Lewis’s work in their influential exhibition, Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America.
In 1955, Lewis became the first African-American artist to receive the Carnegie International Award for his seminal work, Migrating Birds. The New York Herald-Tribune art critic covering the event proclaimed Lewis’s achievement to be “one of the most significant events of the 1955 art year.”
In 1963, Lewis was a founding member of SPIRAL; a group of black artists committed to assisting the ongoing Civil Rights Movement through art. SPIRAL exemplified the spirit of the civil rights era by exploring the relationship between art and race in the ongoing struggle for social equality. Between 1965 and 1971, Lewis supported himself financially by teaching for HARYOUT-ACT, Inc. (Harlem Youth in Action), an anti-poverty program designed to help urban youth remain in school.
In 1969, Lewis, along with artist Romare Bearden, founded the Gallery Cinque to showcase African American artists. The gallery was named after the African slave abducted from Sierra Leone who led a mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad. The Cinque Gallery was dedicated to fostering the careers of black artists and made significant contributions towards gaining recognition for the Black Arts Community.
Lewis remained well under the radar of most mainstream art critics during the height of abstract expressionism’s popularity, but his works were highly regarded within the New York art community. In 1972 Lewis was awarded a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation. That same year he was also granted a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. And in 1975 Lewis was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Lewis unexpectedly passed away on August 27, 1979, in New York City. Throughout his career, he remained a vocal advocate for the promotion of Black artists. His tireless community activism helped pave the way for future generations of aspiring African-American painters.