The first big problem for Norman Lewis was that most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were drawing from their cultural capital as white, male and middle class to purportedly create art which was ‘universal’ to the human experience and which gainsaid the concept of gender, economic or racial difference. At that time the white, male, middle class perspective was dominant and taken for ‘universal’ – everybody was supposed to benefit from it and get on board that train (and some black and women artists apparently even tried to get on that train). It was Lewis’s goal, however, to draw upon his experiences as an African American in situations of oppression to create his pieces. His depth of insight coming from struggle and resistance was deeper and, ironically, more universal than that of his buddies in the Abstract Expressionist movement, but he was marginalized due to this orientation.
Drawing from the black experience in America allowed for a greater type of universalism than the type the white guys falsely asserted that they, themselves, owned, but it relegated Lewis to nearly complete irrelevance among the established and respected critics of the time. Indeed, he is still referred to as, basically, the black guy who was doing Abstract Expressionism when, in fact, the current retrospective show, ‘Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis’, at Chicago’s Cultural Center, would seem to show that he should never have even been characterized as an Abstract Expressionist in the first place. Indeed, that Lewis was not an Abstract Expressionist seemed to be the opinion shared by the curator of the show Ruth Fine in a comment she made at the National Gallery of Art this year.
The second big problem for Lewis was that wealthy white folks who bought art would often buy what they ‘liked’ and not what had universal or humane meaning. Once, after I wrote a review of an unrelated gallery show, the gallery owner emailed me and bluntly told me that the people who buy pieces from his gallery do so primarily because they like the colors in them. He prayed that potential buyers would not read my review because they definitely would not buy pieces if they realized there were controversial ideas in them. Some wealthy white guy wandering into the Willard Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1950s was probably not going to buy a work that dealt with psychological responses to racial injustice or which referenced the struggle for human rights or racial equality.
Indeed, the range of content and themes in art has been severely limited, historically, due to first the patronage and then the market system. The anticipated taste of art buyers often determines what gets shown and then saved in museums. What the (white, male, affluent) art buyer does not like does not often go very far – this has been a limiting parameter throughout the history of art, especially since the market system took over, and it hurt Lewis severely.
The third big problem for Lewis was that in much of his work he made no pretensions to abstract art being a bifurcation from or radically divorced from representational art. Abstract art, to Lewis, seemed to be a continuation or further development of representational art just as, as an analogy, infrared radiation is a continuation of the overall light spectrum. On occasion his pieces seem to be completely non-representational, as in his overt imitations of Kandinsky (seen in his piece ‘Fantasy’), his overtly geometrical pieces of the late 40s which spoke through line and color, his attempts to mirror the rhythms of music in some of his pieces or in his ‘Sea Change’ pieces. (Yet, even in his ‘Sea Change’ paintings you see egg-like or placental images intimating, perhaps, re-birth on a social scale.) That you could often see figures and that the figures sometimes seemed to allude to Klan meetings or cross-burnings or lynchings, again, supposedly limited the universalism that the Abstract Expressionists falsely claimed as their accomplishment.
The most interesting experiment I came away with from ‘Procession’ was how Lewis uses the repetition of human figures to create geometrical or organic shapes against contrasting backgrounds. In ‘Double Cross’ we see an image that very well could have been inspired by the phenomenon of cross-burnings with a thick, blackened concentric grouping overlapping an intense fervid background. Figures seem to be running toward the two crosses, creating greater and greater density and overall darkness. The power of hatred to awaken the worse in us, and to link us to others as a greater and greater organic mass of blind emotion seems to be implied (and is clearly applicable to a political and social phenomenon which reared its head in the recent American presidential elections). ‘Alabama’ seems to work from the same principle of either a gathering or loosening of social density, in this case the color white possibly representing the color of Klan robes.
‘Journey to an End’ uses a similar technique as we seem to see one large Klan figure moving forward aggressively in a violent gesture (perhaps throwing something – his arm bent back like the common image of a baseball pitcher just before he brings the ball forward) who is comprised of numerous smaller white figures marching, carrying flags and walking with guns in lockstep.
‘Ritual’, on the other hand, presents a mass of smaller human figures in colorful, African-inspired clothing, forming a crescent image below three ambiguous lines against a background of rich and soothing blue. It is as if this group - formed like a bowl or cupped hands - has come together to receive a blessing or higher influence and the implication is that this must happen as a community – a gibe, perhaps, against the lonely, alienated Abstract Expressionists who felt they each spoke for and to humanity from their isolation and individuality. The show runs until January 8, 2017 and is one of the more significant shows in the country at this time.