The sole African American artist active with the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, Norman Wilfred Lewis used his art to transcend racial barriers and promote a universal human condition. Best known for his gestural calligraphic brushwork, expressive use of line, and bold color choices, Lewis first painted in a figurative, realist style before adopting a non-representational practice.   

Born in Harlem to parents of Caribbean descent, Lewis grew up during the burgeoning cultural renaissance in that borough. From a young age, he showed promise in the visual arts, but upon high school graduation joined a merchant ship that traveled throughout Central and South America. After his return to Harlem in the early 1930s, Lewis would walk by Augusta Savage’s basement studio. Captivated, he eventually worked up the courage to ask her to teach him. For two years, Lewis sculpted beside Savage before enrolling in painting courses at Columbia University. By 1934, Lewis had made the transition from student to instructor, leading courses at Augusta Savage’s Studio of Arts and Crafts and at the Harlem Community Arts Center, where he met Jacob Lawrence.

During the Depression, Lewis was employed by the Works Progress Administration, which funded his job at the Harlem center. Under WPA auspices, Lewis and fellow artist Rex Goreleigh were assigned to teaching posts at two Southern historically black institutions: North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Bennett College, both located in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1938. The pair also operated an art center housed within the Carnegie Negro Library in that city. The virulent racism he encountered there led Lewis to leave the South after only a few months. When the WPA ceased operations in 1943, Lewis joined the faculty at New York’s George Washington Carver School, where his colleagues included Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, and Charles White. Decades later, he taught classes at the Art Students League in the 1970s.

Lewis initially painted in a Social Realist style that reflected the challenges facing the black community—scenes of urban bread lines, homelessness, and police brutality—an approach he abandoned in the 1940s. Looking back, he explained the shift: “For many years, I, too, struggled single-mindedly to express social conflict through my painting. However, gradually I came to realize that certain things are true: 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; therefore, the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.” Abstraction allowed him to separate politics from his artistic expression.

By mid-century, Lewis was a member of the circle of prominent avant-garde artists—Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning—who were reshaping American art and was the only black artist to participate in Studio 35’s famed closed-door sessions that defined Abstract Expressionism. He was the first African American to win the Carnegie International Award in Painting, which the New York Herald-Tribune deemed “one of the most significant events of the 1955 art year.” Alongside Pollock, de Kooning, and Lyonel Feininger, Lewis was selected to represent the United States at the Twenty-Eighth Venice Biennale in 1956. Despite his success and frequent exhibitions with the New York School painters, he failed to garner the critical recognition or financial reward of his white peers.

In reaction to the March on Washington during the civil rights movement, Lewis and several other African American artists—Romare Bearden, Merton Simpson, Charles Alston, Felrath Hines, and Woodruff—formed Spiral, a black artist collective, in 1963. Around this time, Lewis began creating work with a limited palette as a response to Spiral’s first and only exhibition of black-and-white themed artwork. While the group was short-lived, he continued to foster African American artists by teaching at the antipoverty organization Harlem Youth in Action and co-founded the Cinque Gallery, an arts space dedicated to emerging black artists. In 1972, Lewis received awards from the Mark Rothko Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts; a Guggenheim Fellowship followed three years later.

Norman Lewis predicted that he would not “be noticed until thirty or forty years” after his death. Indeed, in recent years his work has received overdue posthumous reappraisal as the subject of major exhibitions and through museum acquisitions. Today, Lewis is represented in the permanent collections of nearly every major American art institution.