Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979) was technically the first African-American abstract expressionist painter and teacher.
He lived in Harlem all of his life and was born to Bermudian parents. Lewis maintained studio space at the Harlem Art Center and participated (along with Jackson Pollock) in art projects for the Works Progress Administration or WPA. The WPA was a massive effort in the 1930’s under FDR’s New Deal agency to put unemployed people back to work.
Norman started painting mostly figurative art about the plight of Blacks in America with subjects like the bread lines of the poor and police brutality. Then, in the ’50’s, he switched to a more abstract style that celebrated the aesthetics of art. He often felt pressured to make works that reflected the plight of the Blacks in America. He felt that his goal of making aesthetically beautiful work made a valuable contribution to society and culture.
Most Famous Works
His most famous work is Migrating Birds which received the Carnegie International Award from the Carnegie Museum. Norman Lewis was the first African-American to receive such an award. A New York Herald-Tribune writer stated that the artwork was the most significant event in the field art for that year.
“…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)
What Inspires Me About Norman Lewis
I completely connect with his sentiment in making beautiful art in that I, too, make “beautiful” work. Even though I strive to make soulful abstracts; over the years, I’ve often felt that I needed to make work that spoke to the problems in our society. I see many other quilters and painters doing that and have often felt guilty for not saying something “more substantial”. Deep down, I feel that every artist makes a contribution. That is the beauty of art. Everyone has something to contribute. So, the beautiful scenes of Water Lillies by Monet are just as important as the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
I’m so pleased to be able to attend the first comprehensive museum exhibit on Norman Lewis’ work by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art at the end of March. The exhibit goes on until April 3rd so I plan to just make it. Afterwards, it will travel to Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth,Texas and then onto Chicago, Illinois.
Last week I received the exhibition catalog from the PAFA (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts) show of Norman Lewis. It is a wonderfully detailed, well-written book that is a whopping 288 pages. The art pieces are in full color and many cover a full page!
In reading and researching the wonderful tidbits, I’ve learned that Norman Lewis actually had an estimated 2,500 works. In addition to paintings, sculpture and drawings, he also completed some quilts! Impressive. He was a true artistic spirit…willing to experiment with many different mediums.
*All Images from Art History – Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis Portrait, The Yellow Hat (1936), Migrating Birds (1953)
Smithsonian’s page on Norman Lewis
The Art Story, Norman Lewis Biography