Norman Lewis - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "Art is to me the expression of unconscious experiences common to all men, which have been strained through the artist’s own peculiar associations and use of his medium. In this sense, it becomes an activity of discovery, emotional, intellectual and technical, not only for the artist but those who view his work."
    —Norman Lewis, ca. 1950

    A spectacular example of Norman Lewis’ black paintings, Abstract City manifests the artist’s acclaimed standing among the pantheon of Abstract Expressionist masters. A colleague of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline, Lewis was a crucial member of the seminal first generation of the New York School. The sole African-American artist of his circle, he exhibited at the historic symposium at Studio 35 in New York in 1950, the event after which the term “Abstract Expressionism” was coined. 


    Artists’ meeting at Studio 35, New York, organized by Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, April 1950. Image: Aaron Siskind, Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

    Left to right: Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst, Peter Grippe, Adolf Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Barr, Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, James Brooks, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Poussette-Dart

    Painted around the same year of the groundbreaking event, the present work is historically underscored by its storied provenance, having long remained in the notable collection of Don Cornelius. As the creator of “Soul Train,” the renowned television host played a pivotal role in disseminating Black music throughout America and the world, providing exposure to epochal musicians including James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s. An aspiring cartoonist in his youth, Cornelius maintained an avid interest in art and became a substantial supporter of African-American art during his lifetime, collecting the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Richmond Barthé, Beauford Delaney, and Elizabeth Catlett. Abstract City is now arriving to auction on the heels of Lewis’ long overdue recognition marked by the artist’s major retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Chicago Cultural Center from 2016 to 2017 and his recent feature in the lauded 2021 HBO documentary, Black Art: In the Absence of Light

    "Black is a color, better still, a light; its soft and diffuse radiance dissolves our habitual patterns…" 
    —Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus, 1948

    [left] Norman Lewis, City Night, 1949. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY [right] Frank Stella, Seven Steps, 1959. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Image: bpk Bildagentur / Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne / Sabrina Walz / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2021 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    By the mid-1940s, Lewis abandoned the Social Realist style in favor of abstraction, which he found artistically liberating to distance himself from the stereotype of a racially dominated painterly vocabulary. His use of the color black as part of this shift is a distinguishing marker of his work and a prominent feature throughout his entire career. The color fascinated Lewis not only in its relational dynamic to other colors and to the effect of luminosity, but also, in his words, to use “color in such a way that it could become other things.”i  As Ann Eden Gibson observed, “From the mid-1940s until his death, Lewis in fact painted black, or darkened versions of nearly every subject he treated...Lewis’s interest in blackness in painting went beyond its usefulness to his undeniably modernist ambitions.”ii  



    Predating one of the artist’s closest associates, Ad Reinhardt, in his use of black, Lewis’ black paintings also recall those of his younger contemporaries including Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg while embodying a striking figurative quality channeled through his own unique sensibility. “For Lewis,” Gibson explained, “black painting provided an entry to a cosmos, as his contemporary Charles Davis so memorably put it, in which modernism and African-American identity can coexist. Like Davis, he wanted to place the art of African Americans in what we would now call its intercultural visual milieu.”iii 

    "The artist has a great responsibility not only to use himself honestly and know his medium profoundly, but to realize that he must communicate unique experiences so that they become unquestionably possible for the viewer, which are not dependent upon inappropriate rationales, but emerge in symbols clearly of his own time, and basic to the aesthetics of future times."
    —Norman Lewis, ca. 1950

    [left] Clyfford Still, PH-28, 1956. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. Artwork: © City and County of Denver / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Georgia O’Keeffe, Red and Orange Streak, 1919. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Image: The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

    Abstract City showcases Lewis’ signature mode of black that set him apart from contemporaries like Reinhardt—black does not overcome the composition but presents a sharp contrast to the bold colors. Here, the complex array of brightly colored forms echoes the glimmering lights of New York City emerging from the night’s darkness, reflecting the artist’s explorations of black to conjure pictures of his favorite time of day. Joan Murray Weissman, who lived with Lewis between 1946 and 1952, recalled, “He really loved night: he loved going out at night, and he loved walking at night, and he loved the sky with stars in it, and he loved lights. He was a night kind of guy.”iv


    The present work showcases Lewis’ calligraphic form of abstraction that straddles the line towards figuration. Despite the rich variety of bright colors, Lewis achieves a softness to their application that lends the work its atmospheric glow. By manipulating the pigments through a uniquely devised technique of smudging that he had perfected by the late 1940s, Lewis creates a figure-ground relationship between the shimmering lights and the black background. In doing so, the center of the two-dimensional canvas appears magnified and infused with a vibrant energy that exudes from and subverts the flatness of the picture plane. Presenting a lyrical, nocturnal cityscape in his signature vertical format, Abstract City encapsulates Lewis’ luminous abstraction that not only reflects his virtuosic control over the painterly medium and his interest in the interplay between light and dark, but also manifests his ultimate vision on the power of abstraction. “The goal of the artist must be inherently aesthetic development and, in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.”v


    Artists’ meeting at Studio 35, New York, organized by Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, April 1950. Image: Aaron Siskind, Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

    Left to right: David Smith, Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Erns

    i Norman Lewis, quoted in Ann Eden Gibson, “Black is a Color: Norman Lewis and Modernism in New York,” Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-1977, exh. cat., Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1998, p. 11.
    ii Ann Eden Gibson, ibid.
    iii Ibid.
    iv Joan Murray Weissman, quoted in William Zimmer, “The Color Black: On the Painter’s Canvas and in the World,” The New York Times, May 30, 1999, online.
    v Norman Lewis, quoted in Norman Lewis: From the Harlem Renaissance to Abstraction, exh. cat., Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, 1989, p. 65.

    • Provenance

      Sacks Fine Art, New York
      Don Cornelius, Los Angeles (acquired from the above circa 1991)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


Abstract City

signed “NORMAN LEWIS” lower right
oil on canvas
60 1/4 x 30 in. (153 x 76.2 cm)
Painted circa 1950.

Full Cataloguing

$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $1,119,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021