"That's white of you, Thomas Hoving" read the sandwich-board sign Norman Lewis wore. It was the year 1969, when Lewis and others walked the picket line outside the Metropolitan Museum to protest the absence of black artists in the the museum's documentary exhibition Harlem On My Mind. Hoving, the Met's director, was just two years into his tumultuous tenure; his name was about to become shorthand for the commercial exploitation of art but this demonstration was an event of a totally different kind. The idea to show the flowering of black arts through the eyes of white artists was bad in so many ways that it seems to have been dreamed up by sleepwalkers. Norman Lewis was an African-American artist whose work, both figurative and abstract, combined spiritual elements and political consciousness in uncommon ways. Only now, decades after his death are we beginning to appreciate his achievements.
At the time Lewis was the only one of the picketing black artists whose work had been shown at the Met, albeit only in group exhibitions, in 1933, 1942, and in 1953 when two of his drawings were included in an exhibition of works from the private collection of Edward Wales Root. Root was an art instructor at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and, when he died in 1956, he bequeathed his collection (227 paintings by 80 American artists) to the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in nearby Utica. When a new museum building, designed by Philip Johnson, opened in 1960, its sculpture court was named in honor of Root. And that is where I had my first encounter with Heroic Evening.
That an African-American artist at mid-century was possessed of a painfully split consciousness is not surprising. After making the transition from realism to abstraction, Lewis offered some thoughts on the matter, like this: "(O)ne of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any social change."
Measuring about six feet tall by four feet wide, Heroic Evening has the scale its title suggests. It is an especially optimistic version of forms that Lewis often used in his paintings. For Lewis, flickering lights or procession could represent lynch mobs or Ku Klux Klansman on the march but here the wave-like layers of blue seem benign, reminding us that we too are water. I can never finally decide whether I think I see birds soaring above clouds or fish darting near the ocean floor or an abstract vision of human emotions. The little dab of red among the waves may be a reflection of the setting sun. Even without its title, this is a visionary work, a picture to spend time with, and be immersed in.
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis is a traveling retrospective now on vie at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 8, 2017.
Image: Norman Lewis (1909-1979) - Heroic Evening, 1963, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.