"Vertical Abstraction": A Fascinating Early Work
by Norman Wilfred Lewis
Below, we look at how the artist combined his interest in vertical compositions with a direct, Abstract Expressionist approach
By Emelia Scheidt
Born in Harlem, Norman Wilfred Lewis was the second of three sons. His parents, Diana and Wilfred Lewis, were immigrants from Bermuda. His father was a dock supervisor and his mother was a baker, seamstress and housekeeper. They instilled in him a solid work ethic and the importance of education. However, his father did not support Norman’s desire to become an artist as he felt it was a profession for white men, and did not pay enough. The Lewis family was one of the only black families in Harlem during Norman’s formative years and the racial inequality he observed in his youth impacted his subject matter and approach to his art throughout his career.
Inspired by an African American woman who painted in his neighborhood in Harlem, Lewis knew by the age of nine that he wanted to be a painter. In his twenties, Lewis met another African American woman—Augusta Savage—who impacted his development as an artist by sharing her studio with him. Lewis worked alongside Savage for two years, practicing sculpture despite the fact that he knew he wanted to paint.
Lewis was heavily involved in the Harlem artist community throughout his life. In the 1930s he engaged in meetings at Studio 306, a center founded by Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn, where black artists, writers, actors and musicians met to discuss the issues of the day. The Harlem Artists Guild grew out of 306, and Lewis was a founding member. He taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center and the George Washington Carver School, alongside artists Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. From 1933–35, he studied at Columbia University and at The John Reed Club Art School and he was accepted into the Federal Art Program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). His work during these years followed the path of social realism, addressing the struggles of urban African Americans. In the 1940s, he moved away from the realist style of painting, as he felt it did nothing to raise the status of African Americans. He wanted to achieve something more with his art and would do so by his affiliation with the Abstract Expressionists.
A self-conscious, and primarily self-taught artist, Lewis developed his own individual style and in 1945 his work was included in Alain Locke’s exhibition The Negro Artist Comes of Age. In 1946, he joined several other New York abstract artists to be represented by the Marian Willard Gallery. This is where he had his first solo show in 1949 and he was affiliated with the gallery for 18 years.
Beginning in the 1940s, Lewis began to explore abstraction. In 1950, Lewis was the only black artist to participate in the famous closed-door sessions defining Abstract Expressionism held at Studio 35, organized by Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. He was a friend to other prominent artists of this group, including Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art in New York included his work in the exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America.
Vertical Abstraction is a fascinating early work by Lewis that combines his interest in vertical compositions with a direct, Abstract Expressionist approach. The painting shares the vertical convergence of urban forms with his other early paintings such as City Night, 1949 and Metropolis, 1952. Drawing is an integral part of the painting—not just an underlying element, but interwoven within the structure of the composition. It also displays the same snowy atmospheric effects of white paint on raw linen found in his later Harlem Turns White, 1955 (Swann Gallery Catalogue African-American Fine Art, New York, February 14, 2013).
As an accomplished artist in the 1960s, Lewis was a founding member of the Spiral Group, along with Alston, Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff. The aim of the group was to contribute to the Civil Rights movement through the visual arts. Lewis also founded the Cinque Gallery in New York City with Bearden and Ernest Crichlow to help support new African American artists. Despite decades of artistic achievement and favorable exhibition reviews, it is only in recent years that Lewis has begun to receive the attention and recognition achieved by his Abstract Expressionist peers.
Cover image: Norman Wilfred Lewis, American, 1909–1979. Untitled (Vertical Abstraction) (detail), 1952. Oil and graphite on linen canvas. 49 x 18 inches. Signed lower left