Norman Lewis - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, May 19, 2022 | Phillips
  • "I am not interested in an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions... Political and social aspects should not be the primary concern: esthetic [sic] ideas should have preference."
    —Norman Lewis

    Painted in 1973, Eye of the Storm is a stunning example of Norman Lewis’ late “Black Paintings.” Having started his career as a realist painter before shifting his focus entirely to Abstract Expressionism, Lewis contributed in an essential way to the history of art as an African American artist. The color black is crucial in his body of work, serving as a starting-off point for his explorations of form and color. Despite modern political interpretations of Lewis’ Black Paintings, the artist continually ascertained that his use of the color was purely formal. Eye of the Storm invites the viewer into a deep atmospheric composition of blue passages, seamlessly integrated into a black background, that exemplifies the sensitive and subtle handling of color Norman Lewis mastered in his celebrated abstractions.i Today, his late paintings are housed in esteemed museum collections such as the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth.


    Black Art and Abstract Expressionism


    Like other first-generation Abstract Expressionist artists, Norman Lewis started as a Social Realist painter. Born in 1909 in Harlem, Lewis used realism as a way to combat racism, focusing on the lives and cultures of Black communities as his main subjects. By the mid-1940s, Lewis rejected politically-engaged figurative painting and transitioned to abstraction. It was during this time that he discovered, what he felt to be, the most effective way to pursue his artistic expression.ii The result was an astonishing oeuvre through which he explored the possibilities of color and form. By the 1950s, he was the only African American artist who had become a member of the first generation of the New York School; his work was included in the exhibition at the historic symposium at Studio 35 in 1950, the event where the term “Abstract Expressionism” was first established, alongside artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. Unlike the dynamic strokes of these peers, Lewis became known for his more subtle use of color.


    In 1963, together with other artists like Romare Bearden and Charles Alston, he formed Spiral, an artist collective whose goal was to promote the art of Black artists in institutions which frequently left them out. As a part of these efforts, Lewis also spent years teaching at the Harlem Youth in Action and co-founded the Cinque Gallery, an art space to support African American artists. Throughout this time, he remained dedicated to abstraction, not figurative or narrative art. Unlike his fellow leader in Spiral, Romare Bearden, Lewis believed pursuing abstraction was the best way to assert his power as an African American artist, and that illustrating social conditions through narrative art was not an effective agent for change. It was this opinion that distinguished Lewis from both his fellow African American post-war artists, as well as his white Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Having stood at the intersection of the Black Art and Abstract Expressionism movements, the artist is often, wrongly, not associated with the latter.iii


    Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II, 1959. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Black Paintings


    While the color black is present throughout Lewis’ practice, the artist’s so-called “Black Paintings” are characterized by their predominant use of the color. The color black possesses different meanings, and oftentimes expresses different emotions—serenity, depression, and sometimes, political anarchy. In art history, the color black also has different uses. For Ad Reinhardt, black signified the elimination of color. For Kazimir Malevich, black combined with red was associated with Communism, as seen in Black Square and Red Square, 1915. For Frank Stella, like Lewis, black served as a means best suited to explore compositional possibilities, as achieved in his renowned painting The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959.iv Like Stella’s diagrammatic lines in this work, Lewis’ Eye of the Storm emphasizes linework in the paint ground. The present work could be interpreted, perhaps, as an illustration of a radar map for a hurricane; here we see areas of denser paint application contrasting with concentric, etched lines in the black ground, very similar in effect to the negative white lines presents in Stella’s work. In his own words, Lewis said “[I] wanted to see if I could get out of black the suggestion of other nuance of color, using it in such a way as to arouse other colors...This was my becoming...using color in such a way that it could become other thing.”v

    i Michaela Lunz in Norman Lewis: Shades of Blackness, exh. cat., Bill Hodges Gallery, New York, 2022, p. 4.
    ii Ibid.
    iii Ibid. 
    iv David Carrier, “The Transcendent Power of Black in Norman Lewis’s Abstractions,” Hyperallergic, January 5, 2022, online
    v Norman Lewis, quoted in Michaela Lunz, Norman Lewis: Shades of Blackness, exh. cat., Bill Hodges Gallery, New York, 2022, p. 4.

    • Provenance

      The Artist
      Estate of Norman Lewis
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Bill Hodges Gallery, 25 Highly Important Paintings, Norman Lewis 1909–1979, an exhibition, May 23–July 11, 1998, pp. 52-53 (illustrated, p. 53)
      New York, Bill Hodges Gallery, Norman Lewis: Shades of Blackness, November 18, 2021–January 29, 2022, pp. 7, 14-15 (illustrated, p. 15)

    • Literature

      Bill Hodges Gallery, Norman W. Lewis, et al., New York, 2017, pp. 22, 90 (illustrated, p. 22)
      David Carrier, “The Transcendent Power of Black in Norman Lewis’s Abstractions,” Hyperallergic, January 5, 2022, online (illustrated)

Property of a Distinguished New York Collector


Eye of the Storm

signed "Norman Lewis" on the reverse of the original canvas
oil on canvas
51 1/2 x 87 1/2 in. (130.8 x 222.3 cm)
Painted in 1973.

Full Cataloguing

$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for $604,800

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 19 May 2022