Norman Lewis and the Responsibility of Presentness

This post is part of our forum on Black Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy.

Norman Lewis (Far right back row) pictured with artists, between 1935-1943 (New York Public Library)

The general consensus, scholarly and lay, is that the African American painter Norman Lewis was an abstract expressionist. People are correct in that he was friends with many of them, Ad Reinhardt in particular; and he followed a similar path, moving from (vaguely) socialist-realist figuration in the 1930s and early 1940s to an embrace of abstraction in the postwar period. Arguments about and for Lewis frequently frame him as involved in the sort of transcendental, quasi-mystical tradition that is associated with abstract expressionism. But we are better served, I believe, to understand Lewis as abstract-expressionist adjacent, attracted to the movement because of its “insistence on each artist’s right to determine how he or she should paint,” a sympathetic connection ultimately defined by difference, artistic—restrained and “economical,” the critic Thomas Lawson observed, when compared to the bombast of his white peers—and otherwise.

However, it was not merely that many abstract expressionists were white and Jewish while Lewis was neither. Lewis’s particular difference stemmed from the milieu of Black experience and Black aesthetic thought at mid-century. He shared a painterly kinship with intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, thinkers who understood that no matter what white America does it can never escape its aggressiveness towards those who are different. Yet they also maintained that America possessed real democratic possibility, possibility it might try to flee from, but possibility nonetheless. Outside of a letter from January 1957 and his enthusiastic declaration that the Civil Rights marches in the south were “Good ole Democracy on Parade,” Lewis may not have expressly mentioned democracy in his writing and interviews or made reference to it in his painting; he liked to display an apolitical stance.

I am of the opinion, however, that the concerns of Du Bois—who towards the end of his life referred to America “as still a land of magnificent possibilities”—and Ellison—who thought that the “condition of man’s being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy”—were shared by Lewis. One can see them not only in his abstract, anti-Ku Klux Klan protest paintings from the 1960s, but in his life-long conviction that artists and educators who claim progressive ideals must actually put those ideals into action. None of these men were naïve about America, but they still allowed themselves to believe, as Du Bois did, that in its grand possibility democracy is “freedom of soul to do and be…reservoir and opportunity.”

Like Ellison, Lewis was committed to America as a country defined by the broadness of this kind of possibility against the narrowness of racism. Ellison wrote in 1953 that, “In a sense the Negro was the gauge of the human condition as it waxed and waned in our democracy.” Lewis, I think, shared this sentiment, with each man struggling to make art that spoke of not only the human condition of being Black in America but at the same time avoided the trap of defining one’s art only through the lens of one’s race. Instead, Lewis and Ellison felt that success, aesthetic not financial, came from depicting Black America in the fullness of a humanity free from stereotypes and the burden of consoling white racial sensitivity.

But how to do this in an authentic way?

This was the dilemma Lewis faced, for he maintained two almost contradictory positions: first, art cannot communicate social truths and, second, the point of art is to communicate with an audience. Here he struggled, trying to find a way to separate art from social protest, while understanding his own art as imbricated with the experience of being Black in America. He ended his 1968 interview with Henri Ghent on this rumination:

I find that civil rights affects me; so what am I going to paint….I am sure it will have nothing to do with civil rights directly…I just hope that I can materialize something out of all this frustration as a black artist in America….if I do succeed in painting a black experience I won’t recognize it myself. I’d have to live with it many years….and possibly, eventually it will become a part of me as a person and something that I welcome seeing.

What emerges is an artist trying to make sense of a particular social responsibility, avoiding transparent messaging while also trying to produce work that was available to the understanding: an art full of content, but free of the burden of blatant subject matter. Art making, he wrote, is not merely about the artist, but about “the people for whom they work.” At issue for Lewis was how to make art that communicated the experience of being Black in America without making art that was about being Black.

I wonder, then, if we might imagine Lewis’s art as a vocation, a calling even, to make known the value of not only shared humanity—but Black humanity and the denial it too often faces—in the moment of the art’s reception. I am thinking here of Max Weber’s characterization of vocation in his 1917 lecture “Science as Vocation.” This is not to claim that Lewis read Weber, rather I want to suggest a familial resemblance of moral thought. Weber argued that we have become “disenchanted” with the world. This disenchantment arose from our inability to reconcile our wish to know the truth of the world with the stark reality that this wish can never be fulfilled. For Weber, science as vocation was more than either science or vocation, and was instead a giving of ourselves over to the process of learning, not in an attempt to make the world conform to our desires, but to discover unlikeness.

Lewis’s vision of painting, I suspect, was not so different from this. He believed in art, even if he used different language, as a vocation, the communication of knowledge, both what he had learned as a Black man in America and what he could teach audiences both Black and white. It was the function of the artist, he wrote, “to reveal a kind of reality which is…discoverable as scientific reality but which differs in that it is directed towards the possibilities…of human expression rather than the material world.” But he feared the coopting of his meaning and its use as an uncomplicated social signpost saying, “Here is Blackness in America.” There is a responsibility to cultural education, he maintained, that works in concert with the social, to instill in people an appreciation of art as not solely visually gratifying, but capable of alerting them to the fact that art can move us, able to “express feeling and transmit understanding.” Lewis rejected representation because he was tired of making paintings of “Negroes being dispossessed, discrimination.” He thought these paintings useless, and real change, if it were to come at all, would come from taking to the streets. Except painting’s power retained a hold over him, possessed of something “inherent” that he “had to discover, which has nothing to do with what exists, it has another kind of reality.” Here was Lewis’s own Weberian disenchantment, seeing in painting not confirmation of the world he knows, but the chance to agitate for the possibility of a different one.

Ellison, in his 1968 essay on Lewis’s friend Romare Bearden, wrote that “the problem for the plastic artist is not one of ‘telling’ at all, but of revealing that which has been concealed….it is a matter of destroying moribund images of reality and creating the new.” Is this so different from what Lewis was trying to do in his desire to “reveal” a reality different from this one, a reality open to the possibilities of “human expression,” a reality where he could be something “beautiful”? Lewis sought to produce art that existed first as an object of experience and then, upon deeper inspection, showed itself to be fiercely political, charged with rage and disappointment at a racist, aggressive America where “violence is as homogenous as apple pie,” and “negates anything that gets in its way.”

Yet Lewis painted on, believing in America’s mythic possibility, his need to create art— a calling, a vocation, a commitment to democratic principles over against a country that seems often to view the right to democracy as narrow and contentious rather than broad and open. For Lewis, art required fellowship; an “art as luxury for personal gain” was of no use to him. It would render us separate, maybe allowing us to appreciate things in terms of their social quality; but as a means of conveying cultural values—of making contact with those who are different and seeing in difference also connection—here was the obligation of the artist. Without this exchange, without “FREE EXPERIENCE AND…FREE EXPRESSION,” there could be no racial progress, no hope for democratic possibilities. For unless we understand art as both an affirmation and possibility of all the present might be, Lewis thought, and not as lessons from the past or for the future, there would be no world worth holding onto.

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Clay Matlin

Clay Matlin has a PhD in American history from the University of Rochester, where he wrote his dissertation on the re-emergence of sublime experience among Jewish-American intellectuals and artists in the wake of the Second World War. Currently he is an adjunct in the Honors and Visual and Critical Studies departments at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan where he teaches classes in modern history, the history of philosophy, and the history of aesthetics. For his scholarly work he is engaged with two book projects, one is a reconsideration of the influence of the painter Barnett Newman and the other is an intellectual history of postwar Black abstract painters from 1945-1965. His work has appeared in Black Perspectives, The Brooklyn Rail, and CUNY Advocate.