The life of painter Norman Wilfred Lewis spanned decades of racism and discrimination in America. These conditions inevitably shaped his outlook and career, as well as his art, which is finally getting its due in “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” the artist’s first comprehensive museum exhibition, currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). Organized by former National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine, in cooperation with PAFA’s Robert Cozzolino and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, the exhibition reveals the range and power of his abstraction through nearly 100 paintings and works on paper made between the early 1930s through the 1970s.
Lewis was born and raised in Harlem to Bermudan immigrant parents. Growing up there in the 1910s and ’20s, his was among a small number of black families in the neighborhood, which was also populated by Jewish, Irish, and Italian communities. By the age of nine, he had developed a keen awareness of racial inequality, as well as a desire to be an artist. His career began in the 1930s, when he used the style of social realism to convey both the struggles and everyday lives of black people, shaped not only by racism but also by the Great Depression. These paintings begin the chronologically and thematically arranged exhibition at PAFA, which progresses through compositions inspired by jazz, the rhythms of the city and nature, parades, the Civil Rights Movement, and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
By the 1940s, feeling the limitations of social realism, Lewis transitioned to abstraction. “For many years, I, too, struggled single-mindedly to express social conflict through my painting,” he once said. “However, gradually I came to realize that […] the development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers from such emphasis; the content of truly creative work must be inherently aesthetic or the work becomes merely another form of illustration ….” While he would continue to focus on social inequalities over the course of his life and never fully abandon representation, Lewis became increasingly interested in exploring the expressive potential of abstraction, and became an important part of the downtown art scene of the Abstract Expressionists. But it was not until the late 20th century that his work and contributions were truly recognized as central component of the development of abstract art in America.