When entering the first area of the exhibition “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, just stop and let the eye and mind slip into the stark, nearly mono-colored planes where patterns of suggested natural shapes and contrasting hues rise or coil but always invite.
And while the images may seem as elusive as some of the titles — many are simply untitled — they slowly reveal themselves to be the hard-worked vocabulary that 20th-century American artist Lewis (1909-1979) created to explore concepts and the sense of things, as this rare and thoughtful exhibition makes clear.
On view through Sunday, April 3, this first comprehensive exhibition of Lewis’ work is important viewing for anyone interested in American art, abstract expressionism, and art created by American artists of African ancestry.
The latter point may be of particular interest to many because Lewis’ main subject is the canvas and the orchestration of colors and images for particular effects rather than the overt representation usually associated with African-American art — although the artist’s early social realism-influenced works used black musicians and Americans as thematic subjects.
And while he may have reached for another vision, the sounds of the already mentioned musicians and social conditions were an important part of his expression, becoming more pronounced during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
What charges Lewis’ work is the sense of being he creates on his canvases: unworldly planes where musical tones and emotional extremes become a visible presence.
“Procession” — a reference to both a particular painting and a movement both artistic and political — provides a visual path using 90 works, a small portion of Lewis’ 2,500 works on canvas and paper. They are arranged in a chronology that reflects both the artist’s history and artistic development.
While the visitor is engulfed by Lewis’ large and mature works upon entering the academy’s modern gallery, adjacent to the ornate late 19th century museum, the body of the exhibition is made up of a procession of thematic units that formally starts with a unit titled “In the City” — a fitting reference to the artist’s birthplace and his early inspiration.
Lewis was born in the Harlem section of New York City to Bermudan parents — a dock working father and housekeeper mother. One of his two brothers (and a sister) was a musician who played jazz with Count Basie and classical music.
In a Smithsonian Archive interview recorded in 1968, the painter says tellingly, “I always wanted to be an artist. I remember at nine years old there was some Negro woman who used to paint, and I used to constantly see her in the street, and I used to look and look and look. I always wanted to be an artist, you know, the drawings that children make in the street and stuff like that. I remember coming home, and I said to my father that I wanted to be an artist, and he said this is a white man’s profession. It is a starving profession. He never encouraged me, but musically they fostered my brother’s becoming a violinist and he was good.”
The interview and other notes show that Lewis studied commercial design, took classes with noted sculptor Augusta Savage, and absorbed ideas and techniques fermenting in a Harlem that was experiencing an artistic awakening — with Lewis interacting with Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Knight, and others who, he says, “were trying to find some identity.” In his case he confesses that he preferred to work independently, saying he felt inept and “would rather make my mistakes alone.”
“In the City” shows Lewis pulling from African, European, and American influences — available to him through Museum of Modern Art exhibitions of new work and his involvement in the Work Progress Administration (WPA). There are the realist renderings of African masks and a series of paintings of scenes of black city life — first adhering to social realism aesthetics and then becoming more and more stylized and abstract.
An example is in the warm toned painting “Girl with Yellow Hat” (1938). The work — said to be his most exhibited piece during his lifetime — depicts the figure of a woman seemingly sitting in a room yet it is also a balanced arrangement of contrasts: natural and geometric forms, light and dark shades, and figurative and abstract.
Then there is Lewis’ experimentation with expressive abstraction: his 1936 oil on canvas “Fantasy.” It was inspired by the Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, whose treatise, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” called for an art that reached beyond the representational and to enhance the human psyche.
It is Lewis’ decision to free himself from the traditional imagery and social expectations that supports his claim that he was mainly a self-taught artist who — as curator Ruth Fine shows in the exhibition’s comprehensive and handsome catalog — was a rigid taskmaster striving for “purity” and “beauty” and musing about “essential truths” and the “reverent devotion to the law of a sublime prophetic task.”
The second unit — “Visual Sound” — shows Lewis’ full immersion into abstraction and the struggle to establish his visual voice. “I suppose [painting] is just like in music, like sound. You hear a new nuance, which to me in color can be subtly explosive,” he says in one his published interviews.
Color, line, and patterns are laboriously designed and tested. Some works are highly saturated canvases, others only ghosts of color. Some are of sharp lines and geometric forms, others foggy forms in moody backgrounds. Then there is the 1948 “Jazz Musician” works where Lewis treats the same suggested figures in two approaches: one soft, one bolder.
While they all are an indication of things to come, the works hit the artist’s aim of creating “a work of art (that) must have vitality of its own. I don’t mean a reflection of the vitality of movement, physical action, frisking, dancing figures and so on — but that a work can have in it, a pent-up energy and intense life of its own, independent of the object it may represent.”
The following two sections — “Rhythm of Nature” and “Ritual” — show his determined effort to create visual jazz-like riffs on subjects on the natural and human-made world, ranging from the airy and light “Winter Branches” to his packed and dark street scenes.
Yet it is the “Civil Rights” section that all the currents of Lewis’ experiences and training merge to create statements that are both politically charged yet meet Norman’s own rigged artistic standards. Here one finds expressive lines and stark contrasts of black and white suggesting the robes and hoods of Ku Klux Klan members in such works as “Alabama” and “American Totem” and the blood-like swirls on white of “Redneck Birth.” They are works that have a power beyond representation — a timeless and voiceless cry for justice.
The exhibition leads back to the entry point and his large mature work. Yet it is also leads to an opportunity to see a companion exhibition in the Furness building, “Stone and Metal: Lithographs and Etchings by Norman Lewis.” It contains his graphic work, experimentation, and exploration of themes.
“Procession” does much to bring Lewis and his art into the public eye. So does the exhibition catalog with essays by Fine and several other scholars — including former New Jersey State Museum executive director and Trenton resident Helen Shannon.
Together they artfully commemorate the art of this American master — something long overdue.
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. on view through Sunday, April 3, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $8 to $15, free on Sundays. 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.