Norman Lewis was an influential Harlem painter whose work helped innovate the abstract expressionist style he was best known for. Lewis didn’t achieve mainstream fame for a variety of reasons but never conformed in order to secure commercial success or critical adoration.
Born Norman Wilfred Lewis in Harlem, New York to Bermudian parents, the future began painting as a young man. In the ’30’s, he found opportunities to showcase his work. Influenced heavily by Black sculptor and Harlem Renaissance figure Agatha Savage, Lewis began working in the “360” art group, the Harlem Artists Guild, and also taught.
Like other Black artists of his era, Lewis used his work to reflect the frustrations of racial inequality of the time. He was especially critical of America’s role in World War II and found it hypocritical that Black soldiers worked to take down Adolf Hitler only to face widespread racism back at home.
In ’40’s, Lewis began working more in the abstract style, alienating some of his peers. Despite the criticism, his work would win several awards over the years. His “Migrating Birds” piece from 1954 won the Popular Prize at the 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. The piece is considered one of his best known works.
Lewis’ art didn’t sell as well like his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters, but he remained true to the genre. He was part of the SPIRAL art group that included famed painters Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff, among others. Lewis supported himself and his family by teaching art in his later years, but in 1975, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Lewis died unexpectedly in the summer of 1979.