Abstract composition by Norman Lewis in black, red, blue and white tones

Norman Wilfred Lewis

American, 1909–1979

Woman, 1948

Oil on masonite

10 x 8 inches

Signed and dated lower right

Norman Wilfred Lewis came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, and he remained deeply engaged with the artist community throughout his life. Although Lewis was primarily self-taught, the influential educator and sculptor Augusta Savage was an important mentor and teacher to him. In 1934, Lewis was accepted into the Federal Art Program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During this period, Lewis worked in a figural style of social realism, addressing the racial struggles he felt and observed. By the 1940s, he departed from realism because he felt it did nothing to effect change for civil rights. Lewis wanted to achieve something more with his art and would do so by his affiliation with the Abstract Expressionists.

During Lewis’ breakthrough years of the late 1940s, he experimented in dense and expressive geometric abstractions. Many times these post-war works were painted with black as the dominant color. However, as discussed in The Studio Museum of Harlem exhibition catalogue, Norman Lewis: Black Paintings 1946-1977, the paintings often include a range of colors. “Other colors — including white — flicker in and out, suggesting the multiplicity of events and objects delineated or enfolded by darker tones. In some paintings containing elements that may be thought of as ‘traces,’ such as Woman, 1948, the white looks like white string, or lines in a dark room; in others, such as Shapes, 1947, these flickerings appear to record the movements of bits of matter preserved in an extended blur or lines of light, like stop-action photographs.” (David Craven et. al., Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-1977 [The Studio Museum in Harlem: New York, 1998], p. 17)

As the text conveys, Woman, falls within a significant period of Lewis’ work. The small, but powerful painting is executed on masonite with black as the dominant color, and a textured surface achieved through the addition of sand. Thin, geometric white lines appear to be etched from the surface of the painting, with vibrant red highlights accenting the negative space throughout. Lewis’s predominant use of black paint may reference his nocturnal habits; he was known for walking the city streets at night, admiring the reflections of light seen on cars, buildings, and people against the darkened sky. The title is suggestive of the subject, as many of his works from this period were descriptively titled. This painting may depict a woman’s abstracted face, with indistinct features that fade in the night.

Abstract composition by Norman Lewis in black, red, blue and white tones