From the Margin to the Art Market Center
Born in Harlem in 1909, Norman Lewis developed as a painter as the New York Modern Art scene grew. He first studied art during the Harlem Renaissance under the sculptor Augusta Savage. Lewis became a painting instructor at the Harlem Community Art Center during the WPA, and painted social realist subjects during the Depression.
Birds in Flight, oil and metallic paint on canvas, 1953. Sold October 6, 2016 for $149,000.
Norman Lewis's stature was soon recognized with his inclusion in the 1951 Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. However, Lewis was conspicuously not included in the famous Irascibles photograph published in LIFE magazine that year. In 1955, Lewis’s Migrating Birds, oil on canvas, 1954, won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition, making him the first African-American artist to receive the award.
Block Island, oil on canvas, 1975. Sold October 6, 2016 for $245,000.
Block Island, a radiant blue composition of curvilinear forms, is the first work on canvas from Norman Lewis's Seachange series to come to auction. Each oil on paper and canvas in the series is identifiable by undulating shapes surrounded by deep hues, drawing abstraction from the rhythms of nature. The works in the series date from 1975-77, though the artist began this series of works as early as 1968, and continued to explore it throughout the 1970s until his passing in 1979.
Left: Untitled, oil on masonite board, 1947. Sold April 7, 2016 for $149,000.
Right: Untitled (Abstracted Figures), oil, 1962. Sold October 6, 2016 for $68,750.Norman Lewis's large Untitled, oil on canvas, circa 1958, is a recently re-discovered and important painting. A masterful mid-century composition that has never been publicly exhibited, it reveals yet another dimension to his late 1950s body of abstraction–a series of larger canvases that he painted after a trip to Europe and North Africa in 1957. In this painting, Lewis continues his investigation of the "ritual" calligraphic figures while moving further toward color field painting.Here, Lewis both reveals and obscures a large, dense composition of his figures with a limited palette by deftly balancing the warm beige color of the linen canvas with washes of a warm white. The figures, comprised of more modernist shapes, and less of his frenetic calligraphic line, confirm Lewis's inspiration from his European experience.
Untitled, oil on linen canvas, circa 1957. Sold October 3, 2013 for $581,000.
The muted field is a stark contrast to his intensely colored Untitled, oil on canvas, circa 1957, which realized $581,000 at Swann on October 3, 2013, setting a record for the artist at auction. Similarly, this bold blue composition was also previously unrecorded and unexhibited.
Untitled (Cloud Break), oil on paper, 1964. Sold April 7, 2016 for $33,800.
Left: Untitled, oil on canvas, circa 1960-64. Sold October 7, 2008 for $312,000.
Currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Right: Cathedral, oil on canvas, 1950. Sold April 2, 2015 for $317,000.
In 1956, Lewis was selected to represent the United States in American Artists Paint the City, an exhibition of 46 works by 36 artists in the American pavilion during the 28th Venice Biennale. Lewis joined fellow Willard Gallery artists Lyonel Feininger and Mark Tobey; he and Jacob Lawrence were the only African-American artists included, and his 1950 composition Cathedral was exhibited there. By 1957, Norman Lewis had gained national recognition, having had a series of well-received solo exhibitions at the Marian Willard Gallery, New York.
Untitled (Processional Figure Composition), oil, pen and ink on paper, 1956. Sold April 7, 2016 for $87,500.
Lewis went on to receive a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. A recent exhibition of Lewis's work at The Jewish Museum in New York contrasted him with a contemporary, the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner. The first comprehensive museum retrospective of Norman Lewis will be held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum from November 2015 through April 2016.
Norman Lewis, Birds, oil on canvas, 1950. Sold February 16, 2012 for $108,000.
For more information on Norman Lewis works at Swann, contact a specialist in our African-American Fine Art department.
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