Norman Lewis - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "Art is a language in itself, embodying purely visual symbols which cannot properly be translated into words, musical notes or, in the case of painting, three-dimensional objects, and to attempt such is to be unable to admit the unique function of art or understand its language."
    —Norman Lewis
    A vibrant and dynamic example of Norman Lewis’ practice, Untitled, 1967 was painted at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career. Beginning as a realist painter before shifting to abstraction in the mid-1940s, Lewis was a crucial member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism—the only African American in the group. While he rejected the notion that narrative art could promote change in a racist world, Lewis’ 1960s paintings are, at times, politically charged. The present work, like others made during the last two decades of his life, uniquely straddles the line between abstraction and figuration, examining the duality of these opposing styles.


    Norman Lewis, Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965. Artwork: © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY 



    At the height of the civil rights movement in 1960s America, Lewis and his Black artist peers were faced with increasing discrimination and rejection in a white-dominated art world. In his founding of the artist collective Spiral in 1963, which aimed to promote the work of Black artists in institutions, Lewis continued to rely on abstraction as a means to assert his power as an artist. However, in paintings made throughout the tumultuous decade, it became clear that Lewis could not ignore the events around him. His so-called Ritual paintings are defined by repeated calligraphic and, at times geometric, marks rendered against a field of color, whether it be monochromatic black or a vibrant color. These brushstrokes are thought by scholars to represent masses of figures in ritual-like gatherings, such as civil rights protests and even Ku Klux Klan marches. Ruth Fine, the curator of his 2006 retrospective Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, which traveled to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and the Chicago Cultural Center, wrote: “These Klan paintings are dominated by Lewis’ broad calligraphy, with the gestures signifying figures intermixed with field. Layered paint creates interactive color surfaces far more complex than that of a simple figure/ground relationship.”i Untitled from 1967, with its sweeping organic forms, teeters on this boundary between abstraction and figuration, creating a lyricism that defines the best of Lewis’ practice. While we may not identify the ritual depicted in this work, its gestural marks intermixed within a field of yellow are certainly reminiscent of the socially and politically charged paintings he was creating at this time.

    "Color can evoke a great deal of visual excitement, to see colors that you don’t ordinarily see, that you take for granted. I don’t think that so many people would be killed on the street if they really saw a red light, if they really looked at it."
    —Norman Lewis
    In 1967, the same year this painting was made, Lewis moved into a loft on Grand Street after breaking from his representative Willard Gallery in 1965. From that point on, the artist would not have a gallery, forced to promote his own work in the art world. Perhaps it is for this reason that Lewis’ work becomes even more difficult to categorize. A departure from his more subtly colored paintings, his use of vibrant colors in Untitled represent a fascination with using color “in such a way that it could become other things.”ii Indeed, the colors employed in this work evade an exact link to representation, possibly meant to signify a gathering of bodies, or perhaps just the simple beauty of abstract painting. This inability for concrete categorization is essential to Lewis’ legacy, solidifying him as one of the premier, though lesser-known, painters of his generation, renowned for his innovative explorations of the interplay between form and color.


    i Ruth Fine, “The Spiritual in the Material,” in Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, exh. cat., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (and travelling), 2015, p. 80.
    ii Norman Lewis, quoted in Ann Eden Gibson, “Black is a Color: Norman Lewis and Modernism in New York,” in Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-1977, exh. cat., Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1998, p. 11.

    • Provenance

      Tarin M. Fuller (the artist's daughter)
      Derek Beard (art advisor)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Property of an Important American Collector



signed and dated “Norman Lewis 67” lower right
oil on canvas
40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm)
Painted in 1967.

Full Cataloguing

$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for $567,000

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 16 November 2022