Jillian Mehlman

There was always something missing from the Yale University Art Gallery’s Abstract Expressionist collection. While the museum’s walls were lined with works from Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline (a relatively extensive collection for a university art gallery), there remained a sense of gaping incompleteness. Today, when you walk those same YUAG halls, you will still see those same Pollocks and Rothkos, but, thankfully, you will also see an expansive red and white and gray canvas painted by Norman Lewis.

On the third floor of the beautifully organized gallery, where the modern and contemporary works dwell, in a massive white-walled room, hang consecutive canvases with seemingly random shapes and colors. Minimalistic and splatter-painted works are wildly happy and exciting, aggressively juxtaposed with the carved wooden African masks just down the hall. There are metal sculptures and organically cut canvases. And in one corner, on its very own wall, as if gazing out on its contemporaries, quietly resides the single Norman Lewis painting Yale is lucky enough to possess.

Gray billows like smoke on a red canvas. Small shapes cluster and interlock in something resembling a stamped or stenciled pattern, their whites, oranges and grays blurring together. All of these elements shift, advance and retreat at once; the difference between the foreground and the background is ambiguous. Rectangles overlay triangles and concentric circles and ovals. Appearing as splotches, the oil paint is cloudy throughout the canvas’ 4-by-6 foot frame. Individual, thick brush strokes contrast with smaller, more intricate shapes. Some of the layers look smeared and erased, yet the geometric shapes that attract the eye first, due to their bright orange and stark white, evidently resemble some human forms. There is a vague narrative here, hardly distinguishable due to the painting’s lack of a title.

But what is so special about this work? Surely, there are other Abstract Expressionists, more renowned than Lewis, whose work is still missing from Yale’s collection. Why did Lewis’ absence in particular render the collection so unfinished? What put his work, according to Pamela Franks, senior deputy director of modern and contemporary art, “at the top of the [YUAG curators’] wish list”?

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Born in 1909 in Harlem, New York, Norman Wilfred Lewis felt an early affinity toward art as a means of both personal, creative expression and political engagement. With a lifelong commitment to painting, Lewis’s style underwent a massive, and somewhat surprising, shift over the course of his long career. His transition — from realism in the 1930s and ’40s to pure abstraction from the late 1940s to his death in 1979 — is rooted in the balance and tension between his identity as an African-American and his role as a painter.

Beginning his career as a somewhat traditional figurative painter and sculptor in the era before World War II, Lewis focused on social and cultural representation of the black experience in America. At the time, this was the typical subject of budding African-American artists: what Key Jo Lee GRD ’17, Yale doctoral candidate in the History of Art and African American Studies Departments, explained as “repairing the caricatures that had been made of African-Americans in art.” Their niche was portraying a true, lived black experience in America, attempting to correct the false stereotyping that occurred in earlier American art. Initially, Lewis followed suit.

That is, until he ventured alone into abstraction: He turned to innovation rather than tradition, newness rather than conformity. Instead of being revered as a pioneer, however, Lewis found himself severed from both groups he hoped to unite. “For him to venture into abstraction, which couldn’t readily be identified as ‘black form,’ in some way or another, was going against the grain,” Lee said. “And, so, he was in a double bind in that he was engaging in the same conversations as all the other abstractionists at that moment but working [towards] the ideas that black painters could be abstractionists, that he could be as good as his white counterparts and that he wasn’t somehow betraying something that was absolutely necessary for the African American community.”

This “double bind,” as Lee described it, truly isolated Lewis from both the world of abstract expressionism and African-American art. He walked a fine line between activism and modernism; to both sides, he did not walk it well enough. Lewis felt most dedicated to the black experience that inspired his early work: reflecting on his background as a lifelong Harlem resident, forming black artist groups and collectives, injecting into his painting other art forms familiar to him — jazz, improvisation, rhythm. Yet some felt he was leaving behind his community for the pursuit of fame. And to his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, that made him different from, and unidentifiable with, their avant-garde movement.

In truth, and in retrospect, Norman Lewis took advantage of a time in which art was stylistically, culturally and visually changing. And as an African-American, he “claimed his right to paint whatever he wanted, rather than following the status quo,” said Lee. It was admirable and rebellious and incredibly difficult. Despite working in studio with Pollock on a Works Progress Administration project and producing work at and above the caliber of his close colleagues, he was largely unsuccessful in his time. With little to his name but many privately-owned works, Lewis died in poverty and obscurity, according to a close friend who spoke with Lee.

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Lewis’ transition from an outsider to the respected icon he is becoming today has not moved quickly. In fact, after Lewis’ death in 1979, his legacy remained unassuming for over 30 years. After all those decades, it is surprising that a sudden appreciation for his work would spark. But, in 2015, a tremendous retrospective began when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts made an ambitious commitment to create the first comprehensive collection of Lewis’ work, which now consists of over 90 pieces.

“It’s really fascinating that [Lewis] had a career from the ’30s to the ’70s, and it [took] this long for someone to address this,” Lee explained. He is unique in that he runs along the American canon so closely, yet he was isolated from it for so long. The integration of these new names and histories into the epic that is American art is not merely a footnote in a well-known story.

“I think a lot of what brought Lewis to the floor is a rethinking of our received history of art,” she continued. “It’s not just about inserting missing names, it’s about recontextualizing the art world based upon the inclusion of these figures.”

When it came to Pamela Franks’ attention that friends of Lewis were selling a piece from their personal collection, she knew the “incredible value it would add to the [YUAG’s] collection, [both] aesthetically and historically.” The YUAG pursued it incessantly. Not only was it a piece from an underrepresented artist, but it had also never been exhibited before. “It was so gratifying to be able to fill that gap,” Franks said.

Though visitors today wouldn’t know it, the painting needed intense restoration before it could find its place on the YUAG walls. “We drew upon the energy of his work as we did the conservation,” Franks explained.

The YUAG’s collection is so expansive that only a fraction can be exhibited at once. The curators work hard to appropriately rotate and shift what works are displayed, but “some pieces just become pilgrimage pieces. The ones people come to see … I have a feeling [Lewis’] work will be on view more often then it’s not; it’s such a strong painting,” Franks said.

Norman Lewis’ story, inspiring and powerful as it is, still poses a grave question for art historians, one Lee frequently wrestles with herself: “If he exists, how many other painters like him exist who aren’t yet discovered?”

Shayna Elliot shayna.elliot@yale.edu