Born in Harlem and working within New York City’s downtown art scene, Norman Wilfred Lewis (1909-1979) first began painting in a figural style grounded in social realism, focusing on bread lines, police brutality, and the struggles of black Americans. Lewis transitioned to a more abstract style of art during the 1940s and 1950s, continuing to focus on social inequalities but growing increasingly interested in personal expression rather than representation. Lewis’s shift to abstraction was driven in part by his realization that reproducing or mirroring social conditions did not adequately reflect his goals as an artist. At the same time the subjects of race and civil rights reclaimed Lewis’s work in a profound way in the 1960s. Works like Untitled 1961 address political activism and humanitarian concerns through hazy visuals inspired by clandestine Ku Klux Klan gatherings and political marches and Labor Day parades.
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art organized Procession, a major retrospective of Lewis’s works in 2016, which traveled to the Amon Carter Museum and the Chicago Cultural Center. Curator and author Ruth Fine received a 2017 award of distinction from the College Art Association for the Norman Lewis exhibition catalogue.