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The Vanguard: Norman Lewis

on February 05, 2024

Abstract Expressionist artist Norman Lewis (1909–1979) was a pioneering figure in the movement who challenged racial stereotypes and pushed the boundaries of abstract art.

Born in Harlem, Lewis first painted in the style of Social Realism, in which he depicted vibrant scenes from the Harlem Renaissance and later the social struggles of the 1930s. In 1937, he was hired by the Federal Art Project (part of FDR's Works Progress Administration) and was tasked with creating figurative Social Realist depictions of the Great Depression era (see below). In a 1977 interview, Lewis explained that this consciousness of social inequities and injustice is what moved him toward abstraction in the mid-1940s--he didn't want to just mirror what he saw; he wanted people to feel what he saw.

artist normal lewis

Untitled (Seated Pregnant Woman with Cup) by Norman Lewis, 1938.

In 1963, Lewis helped to create Spiral, which was a collective of African American artists formed in response to the 1963 March on Washington. Members discussed questions about their place in the civil rights movement and how to engage as artists. While the group only lasted two years, it is said to have had a big impact on Norman Lewis and the other 14 artists who participated. 

Unlike most of the art in the movement, Lewis's paintings expressed explicit political themes, especially that of racial (in)justice. The painting below, for example, was a response to the Ku Klux Klan's use of bonfires, flaming crosses, and deadly bombings to attack civil rights supporters and inject fear into their communities.

abstract expressionist artist norman lewis

'Cantana' by Norman Lewis, 1946.

Despite facing racial prejudice and marginalization in the art world, Lewis persisted. He is considered to have been the only Black Abstract Expressionist of his generation and his art was very distinctive from the other Abstract Expressionists. As a Black Abstract Expressionist, he was caught in the liminal space between two art worlds... The postwar American art world embraced abstract art, but Lewis was dismissed because he was a Black artist, while the Black art world didn't welcome him because it wasn't keen on abstraction, believing that it could not effectively address the social justice issues. 

abstract expressionist artist norman lewis

'Evening Rendezvous' by Norman Lewis, 1962.

Today, however, Norman Lewis is increasingly recognized as a significant figure of Abstract Expressionism. He's celebrated for his innovative approach to painting and also his commitment to social justice. His work continues to resonate, reminding us of the power of art to transcend boundaries and provoke thought.


Pete Stein
Founder, Galerie Stein

Galerie Stein will be presenting several contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists both virtually at and in our gallery in Montreal in 2024.
Contact: Pete Stein at