Born in New York City, Norman Lewis focused his work on African-American life in Harlem. He studied at Columbia University with help from the WPA project in the 1930s and later worked with Augusta Savage. Lewis was one of several Black artists commissioned by the WPA to decorate the Harlem Art Center. During the Great Depression, Lewis taught art through the Federal Arts Project at the Harlem Community Arts Center (1936-1939) and later with Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White at the George Washington Carver School. Lewis went to the 306 location in New York which was an artist’s workshop headed by artist Charles Alston. The 306 served as a center for the most creative minds in Harlem. Although Lewis joined the Artist’s Union and was an ardent political activists, he believed that “political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; esthetic ideas should have preference.”
Lewis is known for non-objective, ethnic genre-views, but his work of the late 1930s and early 1940s was predominately figurative social realism that depicted the lives of the urban Black families and workers in New York. Around 1945, Lewis began to paint more abstract expressionism works. He abandoned realism and painted more abstract works becoming an important artist of the New York School and Abstract Expressionist movement by the end of the 1940s. By the late 1940s Lewis was represented by Willard Gallery in New York City and had developed his own personal style that consisted of fluid forms suggesting groups of figures in activity.
Lewis rejected socially conscious painting as limiting his expression. Increasingly drawn to the Abstract Expressionist movement, he attended Friday evening meetings at “The Club” later called “Studio 35 “ which de Kooning, Kline and others organized in an 8th Street Loft. The Club talked about freedom – about being free of old traditions – old ideas – about trying to let the paint show the artist’s feelings. Lewis was attracted to the aesthetic theories and the belief that each artist has the right to determine how he should paint.
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