The Overlooked Art of Norman Lewis as Explained by Tarin M Fuller, Director of His Estate

Following a recent acquisition by the Whitney Museum, the artist is finding a new audience 40 years after his death

Born in Harlem, in 1909, Norman Lewis led a life laden with art and activism. Unlike many of his peers, he chose to separate the two—even though they influenced one another. As an African-American artist (especially one active from 1930 until his death in 1979) it was expected that his art would document the plight and putrid treatment of black Americans—and that it make a direct statement in opposition.

Compared to contemporaries like Charles Alston, Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff (with whom he co-founded the influential artist collective the Spiral, dedicated to the advancement of how black artists could address racial inequality through their work in the 1960s), Lewis’ art steered clear of overt statements and specific political messages, and his activism lived behind the scenes. Though he was certain art could help in the fight for equality, Lewis sought out representation alongside white artists as an avenue toward it.

(Left) Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Night Walk #2″ (1956) oil on canvas / 66″ x 34” / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY (Right) Norman Lewis (1909–1979)  “American Totem” (1960) oil on canvas / 74″ x 45″ / signed Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

His work, now represented by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, is widely considered to be abstract expressionism. He wished to be spoken of in the same breath as Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock, Charles Seliger, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning—just some of the prominent, white abstract artists of his time. And while their work ascended quite quickly and has transcended eras, Lewis was left behind—relegated to a few showings during his time which garnered respect from his peers. He was famously the sole black artist in the MoMA-moderated meeting that defined the parameters of the Abstract Expressionist Movement.

Earlier this year, The Whitney Museum of American Art acquired “American Totem” (1960), an abstract work by Lewis that depicts a hooded Ku Klux Klansman. It will show alongside Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965—opening 28 June. The acquisition and the subsequent unveiling are milestone moments. The recognition is long overdue yet felicitous. And with that, we were fortunate to speak with Tarin M Fuller, Lewis’ daughter and the director of his estate, ahead of the show to discuss her father’s legacy and the importance of presenting his work to a new audience.

Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Seachange” (1978) oil on canvas / 50″ x 72″ / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Norman Lewis is a quintessential New York artist, having been a lifelong resident of Harlem. Why isn’t he generally included in the lore of NYC art, or black NYC art?

Norman Lewis was an abstract painter at a time when people didn’t really subscribe to abstraction by an African-American artist. If he had remained a figurative painter, then he would have been more readily accepted into the canon. It has taken 40 years to make Norman be seen everywhere, so to speak, in the museum world, and become sought after. We’re very grateful for the recent Whitney Museum of American Art acquisition and other acquisitions recently of museum tier that let us know that we’re doing our work right. I think that timing is everything. Public pressure is helpful and board approval is essential to making acquisitions possible within the museum realm. I also think having a strong collector base and a very strong gallery representing the estate has been paramount in him gaining the recognition he would never have had before. Family was not enough to get this job done.

(Left) Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Street Musicians” (1948) oil on canvas / 49 3/4″ x 40″ / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, (Right) Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “The Wanderer (Johnny)” (1933) oil on canvas / 36″ x 30″ / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

What contributed to his interest in the abstract and the aesthetics of the abstract?

Norman painted figuratively first and, as you can see in the mid-‘40s, he started doing things with his figures that were more linear. He thought there were other people that could do figurative and representational work better. He was really more interested in seeing linear movement, and so he started to pivot around 1945 into abstraction and even his characters changed into an abstract movement.

An artist is defined by what he sees and how the eye becomes a camera: how things are captured and then expressed as the artist feels them visually

It’s indicative of his character that he’d say others did the style better. How was he shaped by his peers? And, how do you think did he influenced his peers?

Norman traveled the world viewing and looking. An artist is defined by what he sees and how the eye becomes a camera: how things are captured and then expressed as the artist feels them visually. Norman had been around the world as a merchant seaman—he didn’t want to go into the service. Norman liked being on the social scene at night, in the various bars and gathering places. This is where he’d talk to artists… Back then, it was a very small and tight-knit artist community—black and white. They would hang out at places like the Cedar Tavern and have conversations about painterly issues. They would talk about things that mattered to them.

Later, when Norman became part of the Willard Gallery, his stablemates would get together regularly, even though he was the only African-American. They also had a sole Asian artist by the name of Genichiro Inokuma, who is the jewel of abstraction in Japan. Inokuma was known for his dry-brush technique, which Norman shared with his stablemates at the Willard Gallery, and that technique is what made up a part of his abstraction. Norman and Inokuma formed a bond, and because Norman had a yearning to learn and discover, he ended up sailing around the Japanese Isles with the artist. There has been a catalog created by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery with essays from Japanese writers in conjunction with their exhibition Norman Lewis: Looking Eastsome included were speaking of Norman and his influence.

Norman Lewis © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

I would say that he was also shaped by his environment. Norman learned technical drawing and draftsmanship with a linear focus in high school. Understanding shapes and how colors affected him was what drove his curiosity. He went to see Belgian painter Max Moreau and he sought out Picasso, just to have conversations. Your eye, as it evolves, teaches you—once you have the ability—to express in the medium what you’re thinking and feeling. That is your dynamic, and everything influences you. Everything you see, everything you taste, everything that’s around you becomes an artistic form. So it’s not solely about who influenced him—the world influenced Norman because he thought in so many different intellectual forms.

Norman was a true Renaissance man. He read everything. He taught himself how to do plumbing and electrical work. He taught my mother how to cook. He taught me how to count cards, to gamble. Those are just small insights into the makings of his mind. Norman was friends with very influential men across spectrums of art, film, etc. These were men where you could not think within a box, you had to be let loose, taught to think freely—that’s how you create.

Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Double Cross” (1971) oil on canvas / 72 ” x 88 5/8″ / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

What have been the most momentous highlights in your time
managing his estate? Is it the Whitney’s recognition?

Wow! I have a few. I’ve had a few! It’s been a wild ride. I started not knowing the gallery business whatsoever. I think my involvement and tutoring from Sylvan Cole, the great works on paper dealer who was on 57th Street. He really mentored me, and of course discouraged me simultaneously, from representing Norman. However, I had to create a negative environment in order to get a positive interest. All they told me was what I could not get done. I think some of my major sales were because everyone told me I couldn’t get it done.

My first museum acquisition with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—that was a big deal. That was the first canvas acquisition, back in 2001. That was significant, although the numbers were so different then. The PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) show in Pennsylvania, that was another high point for me. That exhibition led to a resounding success here in my city of Newark, New Jersey, and The Newark Museum acquired a piece in 2015.

As far as collectors go, Pamela Joyner is the first person that comes to mind. My relationship with Pamela Joyner solidified when things began to turn because of her crusade for African-American art. I am indebted to her emotionally. She kept her word, she did what she said she was going to do. That was it for me, that was the highlight.

Going to The White House during the Bush Administration was another one of the highlights. That was exciting! I never expected that either. I was there for the ART in Embassies Program‘s 40th anniversary celebration. I’ve had a lot of interesting things, it’s been a wild ride. The Whitney, well, that was pretty exciting, too. It’s funny; I get excited at most things that are really positive for Norman—even the things that happen to me personally are still because of Norman, so I’m very grateful.

Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Industrial Night” (1952) oil on canvas / 40 ” x 52 ” / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

It’s interesting that a few other pieces went before “American Totem.” Can you expand upon its recent acquisition?

Some people may have felt that it was a long time coming, but for many artists—no matter how hard they work, no matter how hard their gallery works—it doesn’t happen. There were a number of influences that prompted that acquisition. I am very grateful that the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery was so strongly committed to seeing that the Whitney followed through, so to speak, with the acquisition. Most people are under a false illusion that museum acquisitions happen overnight. They usually take years.

It always brings tears to see his work on the wall with his peers and to see it not be just considered “black” art, but to see it be considered part of the American art canon

What does the Whitney exhibition mean to his legacy then?

Whew… That’s all I can say to that, “Whew!” That’s a big sigh of relief—a big sigh! I’m looking forward to seeing the work on the wall. For me, that’s a very emotional point. It always brings tears to see his work on the wall with his peers and to see it not be just considered “black” art, but to see it be considered part of the American art canon. Even as I say it, that’s still very emotional for me, and probably always will be because we really fought hard to get there… I’m going to have to stand back and take my breath. There are no words to describe that.

Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Promenade” (1961) oil on canvas / 50″ x 64 1/4″ / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

To be shown alongside the contemporaries he wished to be with is like coming full circle. Is there importance to that revolution?

[It’s] freedom. Freedom to be. Norman only spent—in a 50-year career—a moment really painting representational work. He was overlooked by his peers in the African-American world because he chose to do abstraction. Norman was the embodiment of a well-heeled, dark-complected, black man in America and that was hard for people to take. He was fastidious. He had fine feet and he wore fine shoes. He understood fine dressing and he was good at it. He was articulate, highly intellectual and he knew it—so he suffered for it. People ignored him and he was very vocal about his displeasure of people looking down upon him—of racism and colorism. He never wanted to be boxed in as a “black artist.”

Who or what is his work a voice for, considering his wish to be more than a “black artist?”

The first thing that comes to mind is the painterly issue. Norman was consumed with the issues of humanity. I’m not saying that his paintings were political, or that he demonstrated those concerns in his paintings—only a few were, such as the example of Malcolm X, the assassination. Malcolm X was a good friend of his, so the painting that he made depicts that. It shows Malcolm on the ground and the shooter standing over him. That’s one of the few times. “American Totem” is part of the Ku Klux Klan series. The racism here is so prominent in this country. Norman would sit back and reflect. It would bother him deeply because there was no answer for it. It’s a continuum. That bothered him and that bothers me because you still see it. His concern was with humanity and beauty, definitely. The world’s beauty. Even through all of the problems, the beauty of the world was just amazing to him.

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, featuring Norman Lewis’
“American Totem,” opens 28 June at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Hero image: Norman Lewis (1909–1979) “Untitled (Jazz Club)” (1945) oil and sand on canvas / 22 7/8″ x 34 1/2″” / signed © Estate of Norman Lewis / Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY