Norman Lewis, Untitled

Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1945, oil on canvas with collage, 33-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches (Georgia Museum of Art, © Estate of Norman Lewis)

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Norman Lewis Untitled

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Key points 

  • Untitled reflects a significant pivot in Norman Lewis’ art-making as he shifted from figuration to abstraction in the mid-1940s. At a time when American society was emerging from the devastation of World War II, Lewis transitioned from the social realism of his early career to the dissolution and reorganization of forms, strokes, and various materials on canvas that dominated the rest of his career. 
  • In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lewis became one of the few Black artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. As he pursued abstraction throughout his career, Lewis experimented with different approaches by looking at sources as diverse as Cubism and Asian art. No matter the inspiration, his works—like Untitled—consistently revealed the touch and presence of the artist, imprinting a profoundly human quality.
  • In 1963, he was one of the co-founders of Spiral, a group dedicated to their identity and role as Black artists within the unfolding civil rights movement. Members of Spiral debated whether the Black artist should produce figurative or abstract work; Lewis advocated strongly for abstraction as a mode that could confront and express the political. 

Go deeper

Learn more about Norman Lewis’s life and art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art

Expand your understanding of how we find meaning in abstraction

Explore an introduction to Abstract Expressionism

Megan O’Grady, “Once Overlooked, Black Abstract Painters are Finally Given their DueThe New York Times Style Magazine (February 12, 2021)

Ruth Fine, ed. Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 2015)

More to think about

Norman Lewis believed that abstraction had political agency in a way that social realism (defined in his words as “an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions”) did not. Do you agree? Consider the work of Norman Lewis and other abstract artists that you know about as you address this question.