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. https://www.pafa.org/museum/exhibitions/procession-art-norman-lewis.

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, https://www.amfedarts.org/romare-bearden-abstraction/.

I Miss Marsden Hartley’s Mountain Lake—Autumn

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Media Relations Manager Hayley Barton on why she misses Marsden Hartley’s Mountain Lake—Autumn (c. 1910).

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Lake—Autumn, c. 1910, Oil on academy board 12 x 12 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Rockwell Kent, 1926

The first time I saw a painting by Marsden Hartley, I was an intern at the Bates College Museum of Art, in Lewiston, Maine, home for the summer to escape the heat of my college town, in Charleston, South Carolina. How fitting to see my first Hartley in the town of both his birthplace and my own. A few years later I found myself at The Phillips Collection, having recently moved to Washington, DC (again, to escape the heat of Charleston only to find myself in a swamp . . . womp). I turned the corner into a parlor in the historic Phillips House and found myself transported home momentarily, looking at a painting by Marsden Hartley.

When you look at Mountain Lake—Autumn, you can almost feel the crisp breeze and smell the sun-warmed leaves and damp ground. It is a spectacular painting of a mountain and a lake, covered with the brightest trees in the middle of a magical autumn. So maybe this is reading more like a love letter to Maine, but if you’ve ever been to New England in the fall, after having just lived through a summer in a beyond-humid area, you know how invigorating it is and what a bath for your eyes this painting can be.

The blue that Hartley uses for the water and the yellow in the trees, to me, are spot on. On a clear day on a lake in inland Maine, you can see each of these colorsin the reflection of the sky on the water, in the vegetation that blankets the entire state, and in the leaves that turn when they get that first taste of cool air.

Marsden Hartley grew up in Maine, moved away, and once he declared himself an artist, he came back and painted. Hartley gave the painting to artist Rockwell Kent, and Kent gave it to museum founder Duncan Phillips. Upon receiving it, Phillips wrote to Kent and said: “The Hartley is so fine a picture that I hesitate to accept it but the reason you give is a good one namely that in our Gallery many people will enjoy it to the artist’s benefit and to our mutual satisfaction.”

I miss finding Mountain Lake—Autumn in the Phillips’s galleries, and stopping to drink it in, think of home, a perfect fall day, and that damp brisk air that smells like leaves. Most of all, though, I miss wandering through the galleries, seeing my coworkers, and smiling as they, too, find something to stop and enjoy for a brief moment in the workday.