Norman Lewis’s Abstract Works

Eliza Lafferty, an intern with the Major Gifts and Director’s Office, discusses the abstract works of Norman Lewis, an artist featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through January 3, 2021. This post is based on a seminar paper with Professor Elizabeth Prelinger at Georgetown University and was awarded the Misty Dailey Award in Art, Diversity, and Healing.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) is one of the few African American artists who sustained a career in abstraction. Riffs and Relations features Lewis and creates space to integrate the work of African American artists into the Western canon. Lewis’s abstract works—which are forms of Black activism—must be absorbed into public memory surrounding his greater contributions to the style.

Riffs and Relations curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs remarks how Lewis “was not absorbed into it [Abstract Expressionism] in terms of the history of the movement.” Riffs and Relations is in conversation with curator Dr. Ruth Fine’s Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015, which uniquely highlighted Lewis’s abstract works. Dr. Childs recognizes that the Lewis exhibit “was a way of beginning to rectify the absences in the record.”[1] Procession noted Lewis’s activism, particularly as the founding president of the Spiral group of African American artists during the Civil Rights movement. Lewis used abstraction to chronicle significant moments and people in the fight for Black empowerment.

Norman Lewis, Processional, 1964, Oil on canvas, private collection

Featured in Dr. Fine’s Procession and also in a Spiral collective show, where all the work had to be in black and white, is Lewis’s Processional from 1964. Its interlocking shapes echo the “improvisational brilliance in undulating cadences, despite the twisting effects of the fight for human rights.”[2] With a black background, the vertical and diagonal brush strokes relay a sense of dynamism and movement. Lewis forms what appears to be a crowd of people moving forward. Stepping closer and examining the corners of the composition, viewers may seek to connect forms: a circle as the illusion of a head, the line as a body form, the sharp rectangles as protest signs. The shape appears to be moving forward—although it is not achieved without struggle among the crowd. As evidenced by Processional, Lewis’s work leverages abstraction as a means to elevate the struggle for civil rights.

Riffs and Relations exhibits Lewis’s Landscape (Land Echoes) from 1955. Landscape, created prior to Spiral’s founding, captures another form of inspiration for abstraction. Lewis employs patriotic colors with gray-blues, hazy whites, and muted red tones—all framed with deep black strokes. One of the categorical organizers of Dr. Fine’s Procession is the “Rhythm of Nature,” that reveals Lewis’s interest in the organic, natural shapes of the world.[3] Landscape, with the potential allusion to the America’s national colors, moreover demonstrates Lewis’s tendency to document the world around him through abstract figuration.

Norman Lewis, Landscape (Land Echoes), 1955, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Lewis’s work reveals an intersection, although sometimes subtle, between identity and abstract art. The paintings’ titles, political context for creation, and Lewis’s artist statements often confirm his intention to intersect activism and abstraction. As viewers, learners, and scholars, we must continue to honor the intersection between art and activism, and recognize their co-informative nature. Lewis’s accounts of the American Civil Rights Movement should contribute to the greater, Western canon of art.


[1] Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection; New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2020), 156

[2] Ruth Fine, Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 177.

[3] “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, accessed September 26, 2019.

Romare Bearden’s Abstract Works

Eliza Lafferty, an intern with the Major Gifts and Director’s Office, discusses the abstract works of Romare Bearden, an artist featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through January 3, 2021. This post is based on a seminar paper with Professor Elizabeth Prelinger at Georgetown University and was awarded the Misty Dailey Award in Art, Diversity, and Healing.

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is highly acclaimed for his collages from the American Civil Rights movement. Although a celebrated African American artist, scholarship often forgets to account for the entirety of his art historical contributions—including his abstract works that do not directly engage his race. The omission of Bearden’s abstract paintings from the Western canon is a result of systemic racism in the art world; many abstract paintings by African American artists are forgotten, unsuccessful in the art market, or assumed to reference trauma and/or racial struggle. To combat the common erasure of abstract works by African American artists, scholarship must engage Bearden’s abstract works in conjunction with his collages.

Collages are Bearden’s signature style and elevated him to fame from 1963 and 1964. His use of the collage began simultaneously with his involvement in the Spiral group of African American artists operating during the Civil Rights Movement. Bearden’s collages address narratives surrounding Black movement, migration, and diaspora. Riffs displays two collages by the artist—Mecklenburg Autumn: Heat Lightning Eastward (1983) and Odysseus: Poseidon, The Sea God-Enemy of Odysseus (1977). Mecklenburg Autumn echoes Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1862) and depicts a black couple, with the woman’s face as an African mask, picnicking outside a Southern home.[1] Odysseus adapts Homer’s Odyssey to chronicle the Great Migration. Elements of the collages are abstract: in Mecklenburg Autumn, Bearden paints nebulous foliage in the background and simple blocks of gray and red to detail the house; Bearden also employs a variety of shapes and vibrant color blocks in Odysseus. Still, the figuration in the collages contrasts the purely abstract canvases Bearden painted earlier in his career.

(LEFT) Romare Bearden, Odysseus: Poseidon, The Sea God-Enemy of Odysseus, 1977, Collage on fiberboard, 43 3/8 x 31 3/8 in., The Thompson Collection, Indianapolis, IN; (RIGHT) Romare Bearden, Mecklenburg Autumn: Heat Lightning Eastward, 1983, Collage and oil on fiberboard, 31 x 40 in., Collection of Ginny and Conner Searcy

While scholarship aptly recognizes Bearden’s collages, it rarely acknowledges his work that does not engage identity, including his abstract creations from 1950-1964. Bearden’s Old Poem from 1960 divorces Black narratives and instead finds inspiration from Chinese Zen paintings. During an interview in 1972, Bearden remarked how he found inspiration in Chinese classical painters’ use of space to direct gazes across the canvas. He adopted the technique in Old Poem and provided vacant, warm, yellow space near the bottom horizontal line of the canvas.[2] Old Poem is one of Bearden’s many abstract pieces—all of which are moreover forgotten from public memory. In 2017, The Neuberger Museum of Art in New York hosted the first public showing of many of Bearden’s abstract watercolor paintings, mixed media collages, and stain paintings; prior to the exhibition, most paintings were in storage.[3] Bearden’s abstract works, which disengage his identity, should be absorbed into the greater conversation of his career.

Romare Bearden, Old Poem, 1960, Oil on linen, Private collection

Analysis of Bearden’s portfolio reveals the expectation for African American artists to create narrative, identity-specific pieces. His fame is predicated on attaching raced identity to artists, creating “African American Art.” While Bearden chose to engage and disengage his Blackness in certain works, we must seek to understand the whole artist—not just the parts that appeal to Western expectations. Modern scholars should address Bearden’s wide-ranging portfolio. Memory of Bearden’s work must not flatten his contributions but engage his dynamic shifts in style and inspiration, and in the process, reimagine the depths of his contributions to the Western artistic canon.


[1] Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection; New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2020), 106.

[2] Mary Schmidt Campbell and Sharon F. Patton, Memory and Metaphor the Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987 (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1991), 36.

[3] Natalie Espinosa, “Romare Bearden: Abstraction,” American Federation of Arts, October 4, 2019,

Phillips at Home: Creating Memories and Sharing Dreams

Hello from Donna Jonte, your Phillips at Home host. Thanks for spending time with me and works of art from The Phillips Collection, slowing down to look, think, wonder, and respond creatively.

Today, after exploring two Paris street scenes from 1928, we will layer our memories and dreams on a coloring page, making it our own.

Materials Needed: Printer to print coloring page, markers, crayons, color pencils

Time: 30-45 minutes

Ages: 4+

We have been at home these last few months. If you are like me, your mind has been filled with memories and dreams. Maybe in our memories we’ve revisited places that we have been to with our families, or maybe we have been dreaming about new places to explore.

Many artists paint places they want to remember. American modernist artists Stuart Davis (1882-1964) and John D. Graham (1887-1961) both visited Paris, France, in 1928. They met there and became good friends. Wouldn’t it be great to discover a new place with a new friend? Graham was an experienced traveler, who was born in Ukraine and lived in Europe before immigrating to America. In contrast, this was Davis’s first and only trip to Paris. He liked Paris so much that he stayed for 13 months, coming home only when he ran out of money!

Would you like to get to know the city that Graham and Davis loved so much? We will look closely at two paintings. Then, inspired by our two artists and the stories we discover in their artwork, we will respond creatively using our coloring page.


(STEP 1) Observe

Let’s start by looking at Stuart Davis’s Blue Café, guided by the See-Think-Wonder Thinking Routine. Are you sitting comfortably? Take a deep breath. Exhale.

Stuart Davis, Blue Café, 1928, Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1930; Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Let your eyes slowly wander around the painting for about 30 seconds. Now look again, carefully, but with more focus.

• What do you notice?

• Where do your eyes want to go?

• What colors do you see? Shapes? Lines?

• Share five observations with a family member. Now, talk about what you observed.

• What surprises you in the painting? How might you describe the mood?

• If you could jump into this painting, where would you like to be?

• What questions would you ask the artist?

• Visit the Phillips website to learn more about this painting.

Let’s turn our attention to the street scene painted by Davis’s friend, John Graham.

John D. Graham, Rue Brea, c. 1928, Oil on canvas, 25 x 20 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Judith H. Miller, 1990

• Look carefully for 30 seconds. Discuss with your family what you see, think, and wonder.

• What do you think about the repeated shapes of the architectural elements—the arched doorways, the pointy-roofed kiosks?

• Have you ever seen architecture like this?

• Visit the Phillips website to learn more about this painting.

(STEP 2) Compare

• How are these paintings different? How are they alike?

• How do they combine the known (a place we can recognize as “real”) and the unknown (something surreal or unusual, like a dream or a mystery)?

• Do you see things in the paintings that remind you of the past? Do they remind you of the present, or something you might see today?

• Does either painting remind you of your neighborhood?

• When you looked closely, did you find clues about what the artists observed and what they imagined? What’s really fun about these clues, or details, is that some seem silly and make believe! Do you think the Paris buildings were really lavender? Can a musical staff float in a pink sky? What sort of dreams and memories might have inspired these choices?

(STEP 3) Get to know the artists

Stuart Davis often revisited his earlier work, remixing and transforming it into something new. Art critics compared his layered and brightly colored artworks to jazz, the music Davis claimed was the “great American art expression.” He said, “For me—I had jazz all my life—I almost breathed it like air.” He loved to play with words, incorporating text as graphic elements that enliven his paintings. Even his signature becomes a dancing line.

Here are examples of Davis riffing on his own work. Can you see hints of the early work (House and Street, 1931) in the later, more abstract paintings (For Internal Use Only, 1944, and The Mellow Pad, 1945-51)?

Stuart Davis, House and Street, 1931, Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 42 1/8 in., The Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase

(LEFT) Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad, 1945-51, Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 42 1/8 in., Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.6; (RIGHT) Stuart Davis, For Internal Use Only, 1944, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse

Graham was born in Kiev, Ukraine, trained to be a lawyer, served as a cavalry officer in the Czar’s army, and immigrated to America in 1920, becoming a US citizen in 1927. He spoke many languages, practiced yoga, admired horses, and began studying art when he was in his 30s.

Graham’s first one-person museum exhibition was at The Phillips Collection in 1929. Graham introduced Duncan Phillips to Stuart Davis’s work in 1930. The Phillips Collection owns eight works by Davis and 36 by Graham.

Davis was committed to social justice. In the 1930s he advocated for artists’ rights, becoming vice president of the Artists Union and president of the American Artists’ Congress. Davis loved jazz so much that he named his son Earl George after jazz musicians Earl Hines and George Whettling. You can find more information on Davis as an artist who brought a “distinctively American accent to international modernism” through the Whitney Museum of American Art.

(STEP 4) Create

Let’s invite our memories and dreams to inspire us as we use the coloring page created by artist Racquel Keller.

  1. Print the PDF coloring page of Graham’s Rue Brea. (Don’t have a printer? No problem! You can draw Rue Brea or any street scene—as long as you fill it with color and imagination!) Gather color pencils, markers, crayons, or even collage materials.
  2. How might you change Graham’s composition to make it your own?
  3. How will you include your memories and dreams? Will you add people? Will you add trees and gardens? What will the weather be? What colors might you use?
  4. Give your composition a title when you have finished.

Sample coloring page based on John Graham’s Rue Brea

Thank you for joining me for Phillips at Home! Please share your artwork and suggestions for future art explorations with me at