The Abstract Originality of Norman Lewis



by Keith Anthony Morrison

Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), is a beautiful exhibition. Curated by Ruth Fine and accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, which she edited, the exhibition is an important landmark in painting of the twentieth century. Each painting, drawing or print in this thoughtfully installed exhibition is succinctly described with captions – and the whole is augmented with carefully selected letters and memorabilia from Lewis’s archives. PAFA, Fine and all the contributors to the exhibition (writers, collectors, supporters) should be highly commended for this extraordinarily important and long overdue achievement.

Much has been written about this exhibition, and certainly the well-illustrated, extensive catalogue provides a wealth of information on the artist and his time. What I offer here is a perspective on an aspect of Lewis’s work: to wit, his unique concept of abstraction. These observations are essentially based on what I glean from the look of the art, and are my speculations that are sometimes reinforced by documented experiences in the artist’s life. Much has also been written about Lewis’s rightful place among mid-twentieth century abstract American artists, and observations have been made about how Lewis’s abstract forms compare to those of his more famous peers.

What I wish to focus on is what I perceive to be an essential and crucial difference between the abstract art of Lewis and that of his peers. Like most of his colleagues, Lewis’s art evolved from variations on figure painting, and, not unlike theirs, his work passed through various phases of figurative abstraction, such as Cubism and Surrealism, before becoming non-objective abstract art. There has been a lot of research and writings about Lewis’s concomitant involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, from all appearances, while he did not attempt to turn his art into political statements, he remained conscious of racism in the art world and of social injustice in general. The twin factors of abstraction and social justice of the Civil Rights era were to become intertwined in the formation of the imagery of much of his mature art.

To many people, the general problem with abstract art is that it can’t carry a “message.” Or can it? Norman Lewis was known to study art from diverse cultures. As artist Mel Edwards observed to me, Lewis studied Chinese and Japanese calligraphy intensely. Looking at his work I can see the likelihood of his inclusion of calligraphy from such sources, as well as calligraphy from his study of Coptic and Islamic imagery, among others. Lewis, who from the late 1940s exhibited in Washington, DC at the Howard University Gallery of Art and at the Barnett Aden Gallery, would have seen or heard of the exhibition of African art that James A. Porter, Chair of Howard’s Art Department and Director of the Gallery, curated there in the early ‘50s. Porter’s African Contemporary Art exhibition, the first-ever such exhibition in America, was an eye opener, not only because of the broad range of artists from many African countries, but also because of the great wealth of abstract art it contained.

Lewis might also have known of the solo exhibition of Nigerian sculptor Ben Enwonwu, which was also presented at the Howard University Gallery of Art. He would undoubtedly have been aware of the many African artists whose art was being promoted in the United States by the Harmon Foundation in New York. In fact, most of the African art shown at Howard’s gallery came from the Harmon Foundation. And by the mid-1960s, Lewis and many African American artists in New York would have discovered the Harmon Foundation’s catalogue, Africa’s Contemporary Art and Artists, by Evelyn Brown. The catalogue included new abstraction by Islamic painters such as Ibrahim El Salahi and Ahmed Shibrain, who were using Arabic characters as part of their abstraction, and Skunder Boghossian from Ethiopia who used Coptic imagery to create a new kind of abstraction as well.

Lewis must have considered the important art-making by African Americans living south of New York at that time. He would have known that Porter, along with James V. Herring (Founder of Howard University’s Art Department and Co-Founder of the Barnett Aden Gallery) and Hale Woodruff (Director of the Atlanta University Annuals), were among the vanguard African American art intellectuals who were pursuing a global consciousness of artists of color. At Howard, at the Barnett Aden and at Atlanta University, these artists and curators exhibited artists from Cuba, Brazil and Asia. As an example of their international curatorial vision, it is believed that the Howard University Art Gallery was the frst to show Brazilian artist Candido Portinari, Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, Cuba’s Wifredo Lam and the previously mentioned Ben Enwonwu from Nigeria. They exhibited artists from Korea and Japan as well. Lewis would have seen or known of the exhibition of the abstractions of Lam, with their allusions to Afro-Cuban and Afro-Chinese imagery and fetishes. Lewis would likely have known of the gallery’s exhibitions of art by Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, said to have been the first exhibitions of those artists south on New York. Whether or not, he saw all of these exhibitions, his knowledge of cross-cultural exhibitions in African American venues, in locations such as in Washington DC and Atlanta, GA, likely encouraged his exploration of imagery from other cultures.

Lewis also came in contact with many Caribbean and Latin American artists at Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop in New York, where there would surely have been a focus on internationalizing the concepts of artists of color. Global art and abstraction by artists of color had become exciting by the 1950s and ‘60s. When I look at Lewis’s abstract art I see his awareness of these cultural similarities. Of course, I am mindful of the surge of abstract art from a new generation of African American artists in the ‘60s, including painters such as Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and William T. Williams. However, Lewis’s ideas took genesis from the previous generation, most notably the Abstract Expressionists who were his peers.

Norman Lewis’s art is far more than an eclectic collection of imagery. It is important to remember Lewis’s lifelong fascination with music at this point. Music formed the subject of many of his earlier works and in his newer abstract art, it continued to play an important role. It appears that in this regard he frst turned to artists of the past who had explored abstraction in relation to music, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Much has been noted about Lewis’s interest in Kandinsky and it is obvious that some of his early abstractions owed a debt to the Western world’s frst purely abstract painter. However, Lewis’s mature abstractions went in a different direction. Lewis appeared to have had a keen understanding of music, and so would have respected the idea that while instrumental music couldn’t carry a literal message, it could carry a unique and indelible character. One has only to hear a few notes of a piece by Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk to recognize the unique character of the musician. And, even when we do not recognize the musician, we may recognize the cultural source of the music. The ability to create culture location in spite of the limitations of abstract images is a characteristic similar to that in music. Norman Lewis sought to create such a form in his painting by developing a calligraphic character based on pictorial imagery. I call these marks and gestures that became his unique abstract language logography.

Lewis’s art spans a broad range, but I will focus on the importance of his logographic imagery, which reveals marks inspired by logographic characters from Coptic, Islamic, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. He was far too talented an artist to have done this in a didactic manner. Looking at his work, it is clear to me that he must have studied logographic characters meticulously, until they imprinted in his psyche and became a hybrid calligraphy that formed a personal logography, becoming a staple in his abstract lexicon. I wouldn’t know whether Lewis consciously set out to do this or if it was the result of eclectic experimentation. However, what does seem clear to me is that in the fnal analysis, variations on logographic forms became critical factors in his work. There does not seem to be a simple chronological or sequential use of these forms in his work, for sometimes he would revert to his former modes of painting, and then return to logographic language in subsequent paintings. His approach to logography may have been his invention, but it seemed to have evolved from a need to make figurative imagery from crowds of people, like gatherings such as the Civil Rights marches, public assemblies and festivities, which were iconic images of African American life of the time.

Like the African American intellectual thinkers of his time (such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James A. Porter), Lewis appeared to be trying to create a trans-national or global consciousness of cultural connectedness of people of color. Also like these great minds, he sought to make universal statements with the potential to encompass many cultures. Lewis’s paintings of fgures of crowds, which he transformed into abstract patterns, may be perceived as corollary to his logographic abstractions. He maintained both approaches to abstraction throughout his mature career. For example, Sunday Afternoon (1978) is a painting of fgures walking and riding bicycles, all arranged in a fat pattern space. Yet, this is a late painting in which Lewis returns to earlier imagery, such as in Boccio (1957), which shows another gathering. Lewis’s crowds are never random, always arranged in a pattern or grid, spaced unpredictably and emerging feetingly, like the music that seemed ever-present in his consciousness. Musical patterning remained a constant in his art and may have been the bridge to his exploration of logographic imagery. Hence, his abstract art platform is made from a hybrid logography – the crowd as collective figurative imagery and musical structure in visual space.

As stated, Lewis’s abstraction of crowds of people, sometimes festive, sometimes theatrical like Mardi Gras, became the imagery of his logography. Looking closely at the surfaces of his paintings one perceives that he painted these images broadly across his canvases, then painted out parts of them; sometimes restoring and then painting out again, so that the whole became an arena of abstract forms in which the original logographic imagery nestles or scintillates. In a sense this was Lewis’s alternative to the abstract art of his peers, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell. His peers made marks and gestures, presumably spontaneously, guided by the subconscious. Lewis’s forms seem less spontaneous and more about organizing imagery he pre-perceived. This seems ironic since Lewis, like many of his colleagues, was influenced by Jazz. But from the look of the work, most of his peers made art that seemed closer to spontaneous Jazz improvisations (e.g., by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman), and, apart from Jazz, other contemporary music (e.g., by John Cage, Harry Partch).

From the look of Lewis’s work, his Jazz counterparts were more cool, and on the surface, structurally more deliberate (e.g., Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet, Bill Evans). Of course, neither Lewis nor his peers may have identified with these precise musicians –that’s not the point– but the appearance of the art, his and theirs, bears comparison to such musicians. Another distinction between Norman Lewis and many of his peers was the spatial structure of his work. Most Abstract Expressionists strived for ultimate fatness, but Lewis did not. Among his best-known contemporaries perhaps only Arshile Gorky delved more into deep space, but Gorky’s space was specific and transparent, while Lewis’s was dense and vague, and particularly disorienting. The disorienting quality of the space in his more abstract paintings, where the logographic imagery moves in scintillating patterns, created a sense of music that his contemporaries did not achieve. Their art may have sometimes been equally inspired by Jazz, but Lewis’s art looks more like music.

Lewis’s approach to abstraction separated him from his Abstract Expressionist peers. Perhaps, among his U.S. contemporaries, his art was closest to that of Mark Tobey. But Tobey’s art was more concerned with the fusion of East and West, while Lewis’s conspicuously included African and Middle Eastern cultures. Lewis’s forms of abstract crowds also take on the specter of gaudy crowds and chimera, reflective of Mardi Gras and Carnival. However, these are merely some of the aspects of Lewis’s abstractions, not the totality. Like his peers he linked abstract psychology to surrealism, but unlike them he linked to the totemic, the macabre and mysterious of, say, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta, rather than the symbolism of Joan Miró or the anthropomorphic forms of Pablo Picasso.

For example, Five Phases (1949) reveals Lewis’s early exploration of calligraphic forms as totemic images. His work here bears comparison to Lam’s surrealist imagery, and shows Lewis’s expansive range of ideas in development of his own unique artistic vision. A work such as this also bears comparison to the art of Mark Tobey. Lewis would have known of Tobey’s influences from China and the Middle East, where Tobey had travelled; he might have known of Tobey’s Baha’i (a faith from Persia) conversion as well. However, even in this early work Lewis used space differently than Tobey or other Abstract Expressionists, for his space was deeper, more atmospheric and mysterious, more like that of Lam. While Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Gottlieb, Rothko, Guston, Robert Motherwell, et al, explored new visions of fatness or shifting picture planes, Lewis’s art reveals him looking backward, to Kandinsky and Klee.

Lewis’s approach to a relationship between art and music seemed to have had its earliest inspiration from these two artists. Kandinsky’s earlier fascination with abstraction and music through organic landscape imagery evolved into later geometric “universal abstractions.” And Klee, equally interested in music, expanded his imagery to include African and Islamic forms. It appears to me that Lewis was intrigued by their work’s relation not only to music, but also to cross-cultural imagery, especially Klee’s, who used cultural codes as a foundation for his abstract painting. Lewis, however, seemed to have used the art of Kandinsky and Klee only as points of departure. Kandinsky’s early abstractions gave him a clue as to where he wanted his work to go, which was to pursue movement as organic form spiraling in counterpoint across the pictorial surface. But it was only a clue. He abandoned Kandinsky’s counterpoint (i.e., crisscross forms), but maintained the spiraling character.

In place of Kandinsky and Klee’s cross-cultural forms, Lewis substituted his personal hybrid logography. In this regard his art bears analogy to such international African artists as El-Salahi and Shibrain, whose works I’ve mentioned as likely influences on Lewis. Lewis’s art became “international” in the sense that his abstract language spoke to visual conditions being explored by other artists worldwide at that time. Examples of Lewis’s international abstractions include his painting Untitled (Red) (c. 1975), where Lewis transforms his calligraphic forms into closeup images of a personal logography that become like swirling tunnels in space. Here the calligraphic forms evolve into more three-dimensional images, but with a mysterious density that is to be seen in many of his abstract works. Another example is Triumphal (1972), a quintessential Lewis logographic-inspired painting in a characteristically mysterious space.

Lewis used what I have called a personal logographic system to serve as both abstract form and cultural statement. However, there is nothing literal about the logographs he uses. Rather, his logographs are visual characters taken from various cultures, absent their literal meanings, and brought together as a personal iconography to suggest gatherings of universal imagery. Like his peers, he eschews literal pictorial space; unlike them, he created a system of rapid movement through patterns not only across, but into space. This he did neither through linear direction nor in counterpoint, like Kandinsky, but instead, as staccato forms, sometimes in progression, other times in pulsation. His imagery moves across, but also down into shallow space. His imagery seems fleeting, a look achieved because it flickers to and fro, elusively, like chimera. The space in his abstract/logographic paintings is atmospheric, mysterious and in many cases, seemingly spiritual.

Norman Lewis would have seen the visual strategy of creating chimera as elusive specter in the art of Wifredo Lam. He would have also appreciated chimera in the festival arts of Carnival and Mardi Gras, with their scintillating beads, reflecting mirrors and magically disappearing forms. And he would have appreciated it in the collages of his friend Romare Bearden, another great artist who also used Jazz in his art, although in an entirely different way. It is therefore not surprising that Lewis would have been one of the founders of the African American artists’ group Spiral, formed in the 1960s, for images of organic and undulating forms seem intrinsic to his mature work.

While a visual structure based on a personal logography seems to be at the core of his approach to abstraction, Lewis often deviated from that, returning again and again to previous modes of abstraction. Earlier I observed that Lewis seemed to want to maintain imagery of the group or crowd, reflective of a character of African American culture of his time. In many cases he made only a ghost image of his logography, morphing it into shimmering forms, enlarging details into new variations, emphasizing linearity, transforming logography into more generic shapes or transforming shapes into suggestions of human figuration. Like any good artist Lewis identified a nucleus, and then fractured, expanded and varied it over time, sometimes returning to the original nucleus, sometimes deviating so far from it that its identity changed into other things.

However, the seeming randomness of his changes calls into question the conviction of his artistic vision. And here it is important to consider the time in which he lived, when the art world was highly segregated and his opportunities to penetrate its highest echelons, where he certainly deserved to be, were limited. Lewis was an outsider. As a black artist, especially one making abstraction, his opportunities to exhibit were few and far between. It must have been endlessly frustrating to see his peers, such as Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, gain entree and achieve the success that he could not. Like a kid with his face glued to the outside window of a candy store, Lewis stared at his peers feasting inside. His ever-changing style of art was Lewis’s search for the key to recognition, like probing the perimeter to find a crack to enter the room. His many artistic phases were like auditions to prove that he belonged: If I show them I can do this, maybe they will let me in. No? Well how about this idea? No? Well I have many others to show you as well. This is by no means to say that Lewis sold out, but rather that the nature of his times forced him to stretch and diversify the range of his ideas, hoping to find acceptance. Many artists do this to some degree, perhaps even all of his peers. The point is that they were able to enter the room and be welcomed, while he could not.

Even if Lewis’s art-making expanded to a questionable degree, his aesthetic quality remained consistent. It must also be noted that he was a remarkable technician, as is revealed in just about every work in the PAFA exhibition Procession. To behold his works in their entirety in this exhibit is to appreciate their breadth and connectedness, from fguration to abstraction, to the development of a logographic nucleus and its expansion into a diverse range of ideas. The intellectual core of his abstractions forms the principle of his logography. He arranged symbols in a variety of structural forms: sometimes as crowds or shimmering phenomena; sometimes as terrestrial, technological or biological structures; other times as shimmering chimera. For example, Changing Moods (1947) transforms the crowd into a vertical totemic conglomeration that hints of the festive and the macabre in a mysterious space. Aurora Borealis (1972-76) transposes the logographic character of the imagery into a fan-like pattern in an equally mysterious but denser space, articulated by scintillating colors that vibrate like music. Title Unknown (March on Washington) (1965), reveals Lewis’s imagery being somewhat less purely abstract than in some other paintings, and in contrast to Aurora Borealis, shows how the logographic character of his art varied.

Notable among Lewis’s many structures is pattern, a concept that was anathema to the Abstract Expressionists of his time. And perhaps because he used it, some trivialized his work. In his use of pattern Lewis was actually in the vanguard. As stated earlier, he was very familiar with African Islamic and Coptic modernists who used pattern. It would have occurred to him that in the images in the alternative cultures that he sought to bring into modern American painting, pattern in clothes, drapery, carpets and general decoration was a more dominant force than was the picture on the wall. Lewis transformed patterns with cultural associations into cultural space, in the process creating a form of visual music.

To return to the observation that abstract non-objective art can’t carry a message: Lewis’s art forces recognition that non-objectivity can be split further to reveal the difference between formalism and allusion. His art goes to allusion – it alludes to cultural imagery. In Lewis’s mature abstractions, the subliminally imprinted logograph, mixed with the fleeting glimpse of mysterious imagery from a variety of cultures, form a hybrid chimera that characterizes the totality of the form. In this way Lewis’s art is significantly different from the art of his white counterparts. Some of these artists used Jazz because of its improvisational nature, but by and large, they eschewed cultural meaning for formal focus; as a result, the disposition of the image to the pictorial surface took primacy in their work. Lewis was influenced by Jazz as well. But he was interested in creating a visual equivalent to the cultural potential of a chord, no less than to improvisation. To that extent, Norman Lewis’s mature abstract art stands apart. He is one of the most original abstract minds in the history of American painting. His unique approach to abstraction deserves more serious attention than it has so far received. The exhibition and catalogue Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis makes an important contribution to the much-needed scholarship on Lewis.


Notes Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis. Edited by Ruth Fine. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, in association with University of California Press, 2015. All images are © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY Photo, page 1: Norman Lewis in the studio, Photo: Budd, Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York


Keith Anthony Morrison

Artist, curator, critic and educator Keith Anthony Morrison (b.1942) received his BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Primarily a painter and printmaker, Morrison has also published critical essays, which have appeared in numerous catalogues, periodicals, edited volumes and museum publications. He represented the United States as art critic at the 2008 Shanghai Biennale. Exhibitions he has curated include: Magical Visions (University of Delaware Museums, 2010); The Curator’s Eye III (National Gallery of Jamaica, 2008); Metaphors/Commentaries: Contemporary Artists in Cuba (Ludwig Foundation, Havana and San Francisco State University Gallery, 1999); Art and Ethnography (with Tim Burguad, de Young Museum, San Francisco,1998); American Prints at the Brandywine Workshop (U.S. Information Agency, 1988); Myth and Ritual (Touchstone Gallery Washington, 1986); Evocative Abstraction (Nexus Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, January 1986); Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940- 1970 (Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, DC, 1985); Directions by Contemporary African American Artists (Washington Project for the Arts, 1982); Black Experience in Art (Bergman Gallery, University of Chicago, 1971); Jacob Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Ouverture Series (DePaul University, Chicago, 1969). Morrison has published more than 60 essays, including “Preserving Whose Morality?” in Morality/Immorality? The Legacy of 20th Century Art, Getty Museum Conservation Institute, 1999; the lead essay in African American Visual Aesthetics: A Postmodernist View, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995: and “Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin,” The Washington Post, 1968. He has held faculty appointments and was academic dean at several institutions, including the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco State University, the University of Maryland College Park and the Tyler School of Art. Morrison has exhibited extensively, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Bronx Museum. He represented his native Jamaica in the 2001 Venice Biennale. Morrison is currently professor of painting and drawing at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia.