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

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  • "For Lewis, 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."
    —Ann Eden Gibson on Norman Lewis’ Black Paintingsi
    Painted between 1973 and 1974, Fleshy Phase, is a splendid example of Norman Lewis’ late “Black Paintings,” demonstrating the artist’s unique place within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Standing among artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline, Norman Lewis was the first African American to become a member of the first generation of the New York School. This was marked by his inclusion in the historic symposium at Studio 35 in 1950, the event where the term “Abstract Expressionism” was first coined. Unlike the dynamic brushstrokes of his peers, Lewis became known for his more subtle use of color. In fact, it was the color black which served as the starting-off point for his exploration of abstract painting, one he revisited again and again throughout his career.


     Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, c. 1951, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Image: © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Lewis’ signature use of the color black


    Lewis’ “Black Paintings” recall the treatment of the color by some of his younger contemporaries like Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. Like both artists, Lewis was fascinated by black’s relation to other colors and the effects it could have on the luminosity of the pigments around or within it. As Ann Gibson explains, he uniquely treated the “color in such a way that it could become other things.”ii His signature use of black distinguished himself from those like Ad Reinhardt, for whom black signified the elimination of color. For Lewis, the color black served a unique purpose: it was meant to bring out the bold colors present around it. Fleshy Phase is a testament to this notion, incorporating bold reds and blues that emerge from the black background like flames. Perhaps, as the work’s title suggests, these brightly colored forms are meant to emulate human flesh, composed of muscle and fat. In its ambiguity, Lewis makes the work not about the subject itself, but about its formal qualities: color, composition and form.



    In-Between: Black Art and Abstract Expressionism

    While Lewis began his career, like many of his African American peers, as a Social Realist painter, by the mid-1940s, Lewis turned away from representational painting in favor of abstraction. The result was a surprising oeuvre characterized by color and form that positioned him as the sole African American artist of the New York School by the 1950s. Despite his change in style, Lewis remained a key figure in supporting and promoting the art of Black artists. In 1963 he founded Spiral, along with Romare Bearden and Charles Alston, an artist collective with the goal of promoting Black art in institutions. Throughout his career, he remained dedicated to abstraction, which differentiated him from artists like Bearden. It was his unique position at this intersection of the Black Art and Abstract Expressionist movements that precluded Lewis from experiencing the fame that many of his peers did.


    In recent years, Lewis’ works are finally getting the due recognition they deserve. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York recently acquired their first Lewis painting, American Totem, in 2019. The work is currently on view on the seventh floor of the museum alongside a major Franz Kline painting, asserting Lewis’ importance in the art historical canon. Between 2015 and 2017, other museums that have acquired works by Lewis include the Newark Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and SFMOMA.


    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 Ibid. 

    • Provenance

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

    • Exhibited

      New York, Bill Hodges Gallery, Norman Lewis: Shades of Blackness, November 18, 2021–January 29, 2022, pp. 5, 18–19, 29 (illustrated, pp. 19, 29)

    • Literature

      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


Fleshy Phase

signed and dated “NORMAN LEWIS 74” lower right; titled and dated “1973 Fleshy PHASE” on the original stretcher
oil on canvas
83 x 49 1/2 in. (210.8 x 125.7 cm)
Painted in 1973-1974.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $441,000

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