Arts & Culture

Art of Norman Lewis reflects 20th-century racial tensions

Lewis works on “Composition I” in 1945. The painting is on view in “Procession."
Lewis works on “Composition I” in 1945. The painting is on view in “Procession." Willard Gallery Archives

With all that is known about so many artists, it is challenging for a museum exhibition to achieve pure revelation — as in tossing off the veil on a previously obscure artist to reveal someone of monumental talent and scope of expression. But that is certainly accomplished with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s recently opened “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis.”

Lewis (1909-1979) was arguably the least known of a coterie of highly accomplished African-American artists who led a remarkably prolific creative community in Harlem and, later, downtown Manhattan.

But thanks to a Picasso-like output of more than 1,000 known works by the largely self-taught artist, the Carter — collaborating closely with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Lewis family — has assembled the country’s first fully comprehensive retrospective of Lewis’ life’s work.

For the exhibition, Ruth Fine, former specialist in modern prints and drawings at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, spent two years tracking down 1,000 Lewis works before choosing the final 65 paintings and works on paper to display.

That process required Fine to work with dozens of private art dealers and the Lewis family estate, in addition to obtaining works from several museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Dayton Art Institute; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Marginalized artist

Lewis was considered an important, if racially marginalized, member of the abstract expressionist school, which included such famous exemplars as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Fine says she feels it’s counterproductive to categorize Lewis with other abstract expressionists of his time — a distinction that partially explains why he has had a hard time gaining recognition.

“Lewis had this enormous range of interests and expressions,” says Fine. “In the ’30s, the black community wanted their artists doing socially conscious work, but Lewis wanted to do work with a social color-blindness. As a result, if you look at every one of his figurative paintings, no two figures in any painting have the same skin color.”

Among the opening sections of the exhibition is “In the City-1945,” which presents Lewis’ charged street scenes and almost cubist approach to Harlem architecture. “Visual Sound” has Lewis marshalling his talents to convey the sound of some of his favorite musicians.

“Rhythm of Nature” presents Lewis working to convey everything from light and water to the ineffable beauty of plants. “Ritual” finds Lewis melding the “ritual” of the Harlem Labor Day parade with the revelry of a West Indian carnival procession.

“Civil Rights” contains Lewis’ starkest contrasts of black-and-white, white-and-red, to convey the violent racial confrontations of the 1960s — many first ignited by Ku Klux Klan marches.

And “Summation” locates Lewis in the last decade of his life, serenely working on some of his largest pieces of bold abstraction.

Such works as Composition I can be seen as Lewis’ first legitimate abstraction, while Lewis’ early incorporation of geometric-flavored cubism is displayed in his Harlem scenes, featuring plenty of angular fire escapes.

“Lewis clearly enjoyed playing with cubism,” says Shirley Reece-Hughes, associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the Carter. “He really reveled in its geometry and architecture. And yet, throughout his abstraction — and he really is pushing into abstraction with Fish Eaters — he almost never lost sight of the figurative.”

Tarin Fuller is Lewis’ 62-year-old daughter. As an art dealer, a gallery owner and the primary administrator of the artist’s estate, she feels strongly that “people always would like to pigeonhole Norman’s work,” she says, “but he did so many things well, from his abstraction, to his passion for water and the sea, to how fine a draftsman he was.”

Fuller indicates that Lewis’ vital Harlem surroundings furnished accessible fodder for the artist’s ever-productive brush.

“Norman loved the night life,” recalls Fuller. “And he was quite a renaissance man: He played piano, was an excellent dancer, and he certainly loved nightclubs, gambling and music. He did needlepoint and tended to hundreds of plants. He made Japanese and Chinese kites and bred fish. And, of course, he painted every day.”

But when it came Lewis’ love of music, “he makes plenty of allusions to it in so many of his works,” says Reece-Hughes. “In Jazz Musicians, you see his desire to capture sound — jazz’s call and response — on canvas.”

Importance of parades

Another paramount theme threading its way through the exhibition is Lewis’ appreciation for the duality of the “procession” ritual. Fine says Lewis grew up witnessing all manner of parades, especially the Caribbean-spirited ones marking Labor Day.

In the exhibition, Lewis’ now distinctive “stick figure” groupings reflect the jazzlike joyous ebb and flow Lewis saw in most parades.

As he injected more politically charged themes into his work, especially during the tumult of the ’60s civil rights movement, his crowd scenes mirrored the duality of his art: Celebratory parades could also turn terrifying — especially when led by white-hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan.

“And, of course, the blood-red splotch tonality used in Redneck Birth is how Lewis is commenting on the civil rights movement he was witnessing every day,” says Reece-Hughes.

“The most political thing Norman did was his Klan series,” adds Fuller. “He wanted to bring racism to the table.”

Fine agrees: “It’s impossible to look at the ‘Civil Rights’ section of the show, and such works as Rednecks and Redneck Birth, and not see they are loaded with meaning.”

The exhibition also displays Lewis’ admiration for Japanese- and Chinese-inspired calligraphic markings.

“Lewis would have seen that Japanese calligraphy and Chinese landscape work in all the art books he collected,” says Fine. “It’s so clear in Masquerade, with its tall vertical form, mimicking a Japanese scroll, orange background and calligraphic brush strokes.”

Inevitably, the exhibition introduces patrons to Lewis’ wide color palette. Known for often mixing his own paints, he was capable of incorporating backdrops in bold crimson and ocher, or starkly contrasting black and white.

“He was a brilliant colorist,” says Fine. “Dealing with monochromes as blues, browns or ochers. He could go from the striking orange of Masquerade, to the brown in his Rhododendrons in Winter, to the blue of Seachange — towards the end of his life.”

In terms of what Fine and Fuller want patrons to claim as their biggest takeaway from “Procession,” Fine is resolute: “I want them to discover someone they didn’t previously know, who taps into their sense of what the world is about in a powerful and intimate way and that eventually leads them to see their world in a different way.”

As for Fuller: “If you had to sum up Norman’s art in the simplest fashion, it reflected how much of a humanist he was — plain and simple.”

Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis

  • Through Aug. 21
  • Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
  • Free
  • 817-738-1933;