22 November 2016

Norman Lewis: Heroic Evening

"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.

Revised 11/23/2016.
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.


Hels said...

The idea of showing the black arts solely through the eyes of white artists is self defeating. I don't know Lewis' work but of course no white artist could understand an African-American's life, experiences, spiritual values and political consciousness.

It would be like asking me, an Australian with an eastern European family, to show Chinese or Mexican art through my eyes.

Jane said...

Hels, I understand your meaning but I think we need to strive to recognize our common humanity, an idea Lewis himself believed although it is difficult to hold that in mind when there are those who refuse to recognize yours, to be sure.

Melinda9 said...

Heroic Evening is such an amazing painting. It's like visiting another world.

Jane said...

Yes, melissa. When I sit in front of it the rest of the gallery falls away and I feel alone with it. Something like the reaction that people have described when looking at a Mark Rothko painting. I enlarged it as much as I could to give some sense of this; one thing the internet can't do very well is to suggest relative scale and size of artworks. I hope you are able to see it in person someday.