Teaching guide
Spiral: Black Art and the Civil Rights Movement

Norman Lewis’s Untitled (1945) and Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians (1967) will be useful in the study of:

  • Postwar United States history
  • History of the 1960s
  • The Civil Rights Movement 
  • Race and identity politics in the United States
  • Black art in the United States
  • The role of art in social justice and activism

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to: 

  • Discuss Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians and Norman Lewis’s Untitled as primary sources that link to the specific historical context of post-World War II America and the evolving Civil Rights Movement, and Black art in the United States  
  • Understand the significance of the participation of Black artists in the major artistic developments of the mid-to-late 20th century in America 
  • Apply the tools of visual analysis to support interpretation of artwork
  • Identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to “American and National Identity,” prompted by an example of American art

1. Look closely at the artwork

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)

Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1945, oil on canvas with collage, 33-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches (Georgia Museum of Art; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) © Estate of Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis’s Untitled  (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • Where is your attention first drawn in this small, but tall painting? What parts do you want to see up close and explore in further detail?
  • After looking up close at the details (using the zoomable images), what new observations do you have of the painting?
  • How do you feel the presence of the artist in the painting? What are the more human elements and what feels more distant or inaccessible about the work? 
Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians, 1967, collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas, 50 x 60 x 1 ½ inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians, 1967, collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas, 50 x 60 x 1 ½ inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians  (link to zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • Describe the scene in this artwork. What details do you notice more readily and which ones emerge only after further exploration? 
  • What do you notice about the materials in this artwork? How do the different materials impact the sense of scale across the composition?
  • How does the artist blend abstract and representational imagery? How does this blending impact your perception of the scene?
  • What kind of music do you think the figures are playing? What makes you think this? 

2. Watch the videos

The video on Norman Lewis’s Untitled is less than five minutes long and the video for Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians is only four minutes in length. Ideally, the videos should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the videos to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the artworks that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of the artworks are provided to support each video.

3. Read about Spiral and its historical context

The Civil Rights Movement

The 1950s and 60s in the United States were a time of intense activism in response to racial discrimination and inequality for Black Americans in schools, public spaces, the workplace, the voting booth, and beyond. Almost a century had elapsed since the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, yet racial segregation and oppression persisted. A glimpse at the events of the early 1960s alone demonstrates the tensions of this broader moment, as various forms of protest and agitation for change were met by both increased violence from police, as well as bombings, lynchings, and landmark civil rights legislation.

In the spring of 1963, Birmingham, Alabama experienced over two months of largely non-violent protests, ending in a desegregation agreement that was quickly followed by bombings and then overnight riots. This very public unrest prompted U.S. president John F. Kennedy to declare the need for new and substantial, federal civil rights laws. At the same time, planning was already underway for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, set to take place on August 28, 1963. The peaceful March was attended by almost a quarter of a million people and included powerful and inspiring speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Almost one year later, in July of 1964, president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but opponents of civil rights for Black Americans continued to push back with violence, especially in Southern states. During the “Murderous Summer” of 1964 in Mississippi, numerous civil rights workers were killed and 20 Black churches were burned by the Ku Klux Klan. In September of that year, white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four Black girls. The following spring, activists for voting rights gathered to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, but were attacked by police with clubs and tear gas. Once again, the public attention on the atrocities prompted lawmakers to act and in August of 1965 President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

Black Art and Civil Rights

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. described the state of Black America:

. . . One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.

And, in 1966, as if in direct response to King’s remarks, the artist Romare Bearden claimed, “The Negro artist is unknown to America,” referring to the state of Black American art and the persistent lack of recognition and opportunity for its practitioners. [1]

In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, artists across the U.S. were reconsidering their work and identities as creatives in a turbulent time. Black artists, in particular, were asking themselves how to forge a sense of self as an artist and how to be taken seriously in a still predominantly white art world—where many museums and galleries still did not include or display the work of Black artists. These were not new questions, as prior moments like the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, reveal, but the intensity of the Civil Rights era infused them with new vigor and perspective.


We come together after all, because we see conditions and we face problems. —Hale Woodruff, 1966 [2]

A New York-based group of Black artists of varied styles, interests, and experiences gathered in 1963 to collectively consider their response to events in the unfolding Civil Rights Movement. This group came to call themselves Spiral. Their first meeting, held on July 5 of that year, was motivated by an invitation from activist A. Philip Randolph to participate in the forthcoming March on Washington (scheduled for just eight weeks later, on August 28). A number of the artists attended the march and were inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since not all were able to travel to Washington, however, Randolph prompted them to take action in New York City, to—as Spiral artist Richard Mayhew recalled—“take care of the problems that we’re trying to address in Washington about the discrimination and the lack of relationship, in terms of financial [assistance] of Afro-Americans in the community.” [3] The artists continued to meet weekly throughout the next two plus years. As their conversations continued, the range of issues and questions they considered grew. They wondered, among other things:

  • Should they be making art that was politically or socially-charged, contributing to the betterment of the Black community at large, or could they simply make art that was motivated by individual artistic interests? Would the latter suffice to uplift Black America and was that their responsibility as artists?
  • How could they continue to navigate in a mostly white art world, where many Black artists are not represented in museums and galleries? And, what kind of Black artistic identity, if any, was needed or possible within that space?
  • Was there in fact a “Negro Image”, an aesthetic or formal quality that sets Black art apart in the way that jazz does in the field of music? What were the respective roles of figurative and abstract imagery in Black art? 

Romare Bearden hosted the first group meetings in his Canal Street studio in Manhattan. As the collective took shape, numerous visual, literary, and performing artists engaged in ongoing debates about the role and identity of Black art in America—they were, as Richard Mayhew described, “a think tank, not a club.” [4] From this larger group, fifteen visual artists participated in the collective’s singular public exhibition: Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, Norman Lewis, Earl Miller, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Merton D. Simpson, Hale Woodruff, and James Yeargens. These artists ranged in age from 28 to 65, with just one woman (Emma Amos) among them. In recognition of their distinct approaches to artmaking and the shared feeling that “they had something definitive and positive to affirm,” they selected the name Spiral, explaining that: 

As a symbol for the group we chose the spiral—a particular kind of spiral, the 

Archimedian [sic] one; because, from a starting point, it moves outward embracing all 

directions, yet constantly upward. 

Spiral: First Group Showing (works in black and white), exhibition statement, 1965 [5]

The visual artists of Spiral worked in a wide range of approaches and media. Many of the older artists had begun their careers working in a representational style, such as the Social Realism of the 1930s and early 40s, but by the 1950s, most of the group, regardless of age, was focused on some aspect of modernist abstraction. This led to debates about topics such as the role of figuration (art where the subject matter is recognizable from the real world) and abstraction in Black art—asking which was more aligned with their identity and intentions as Black artists. They also debated the necessity of addressing current events rather than purely formal (visual) concerns in their work. Spiral members felt they had something to say with their art but bristled at the notion of narrowly defining a single style, subject, or motivation for their work as a collective.  

The members of Spiral exhibited together only once, in the late spring of 1965. [6] They considered a number of themes and approaches for this group show, such as collage as a format, or the tragic events of the summer of 1964 in Mississippi as subject. Ultimately, in the spirit of their debates about the identity of the Black artist and the role of Black art in America in the grips of the Civil Rights Movement, they decided to create works for the exhibition that used only black and white. This creative constraint allowed the artists to pursue a range of styles and subjects while still conveying a sense of cohesion. As cited by the artists and visitors to the show, this theme provided a fertile space for the diversity of approaches in the group to shine through as well as spark further dialogue and influence among the artists. 

Impact of Spiral

Time, and judicious judgment, will determine the lasting merit of the work on exhibit. What is most important now, and what has great portent for the future, is that Negro artists, of divergent backgrounds and interests, have come together on terms of mutual respect. It is to their credit that they were able to fashion art works lit by beauty, and of such diversity.

Spiral: First Group Showing (works in black and white), exhibition statement, 1965 [7]

The members of Spiral continued to meet following their exhibition in 1965, but decided to disband at the end of that year, with some of their core debates left unresolved. This uncertainty was reflected by Hale Woodruff in 1966, when he stated, “Should Spiral continue? Is the purpose of Spiral to exploit the fact that we are Negroes—in order to get shows? Or do we believe as artists that we have something valid, together, as a group?” [8] Richard Mayhew contended, however, that the group never ceased, “but has taken another form, that is alive and kicking in discussions among African American artists all over the country.” [9]

In fact, the questions Spiral raised and explored resonated with Black artists throughout the 1960s, 70s, and early 80sespecially those within the Black Arts Movement—as they took up issues of identity, representation, and politics amid ongoing civil and human rights activism. For example, members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) protested the lack of representation of Black artists at museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still today, Black artists circle back to these same questions in their work. And, in his much later recollections of Spiral, Richard Mayhew described how the group was instrumental in strengthening and expanding a network of Black artists in America. Spiral artists learned from each other, challenged one another, and supported each other in both creative and political ways. Spiral engendered for future artists a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. Mayhew concisely captured this notion, saying “Part of Spiral . . . is seeking the creative world beyond yourself.” [10] 

The artists of Spiral: two snapshots

Works by the following Spiral members, created at different times in their careers, reflect the diversity of the group’s membership and the potent ideas and possibilities each artist brought to Spiral’s short-lived but impactful existence during the American Civil Rights Movement. 

Romare Bearden

In the early 1920s in New York City, Romare Bearden was growing up in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. His social activist parents hosted Black artists and intellectuals of the time in their home, including W.E.B Du Bois who famously described the double consciousness of being a Negro (the term commonly used at the time) and American—a tension that many artists have wrestled with in their work. And, the jazz and blues music scenes were flourishing in locales just blocks away. Bearden took it all in.

Early in his artistic career, he participated in emerging collectives of Black artists, such as the Harlem Artists Guild and the 306 Group. He also worked as a social worker and served in the army. He traveled to Europe and studied philosophy and the work of historic and contemporary European artists. In the 1930s and 40s he produced work in the style of social realism, telling visual stories about injustice and marginalization in American society. In Factory Workers, Bearden addresses the discrimination against Black laborers in the U.S. defense industry. The image served as a frontispiece to an article in Fortune magazine, which brought his art and message to a wide audience.

In the 1950s and 60s, Bearden experimented with Abstract Expressionism but ultimately shifted his focus to collage, variously blending abstract painting with cut and torn printed and painted paper as he portrayed scenes from Black American life and culture. His contributions to the 1965 Spiral exhibition were all collages. They and Three Folk Musicians exemplified his blending of materials as well as stylistic and thematic influences from jazz music to Euro-American modernism to African culture. Bearden experienced greater visibility and commercial success with his collages. He was able to quit his job as a social worker and fully dedicate himself to his artistic pursuits for the remainder of his life. About his collages, Bearden said, “What I have tried to do . . . [is] to bring the Afro-American experience into art and give it a universal dimension.” [11]

Norman Lewis

I am not interested in an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions, but in my work I am for something of deeper artistic and philosophic content… Political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; esthetic ideas should have preference. Is there a Negro Image? [12]

Like Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis spent the formative years of his youth in Harlem, participating in the 306 Group with Bearden, and his early work was in the style and format of social realism. By the mid-1940s, however, Lewis shifted to an entirely abstract mode of painting and went on to become a significant figure among the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s. As his career progressed, he continued to evolve his abstract style, experimenting with diverse influences and different types of lines and forms. As a member of Spiral, Lewis was a vocal advocate for abstraction, feeling that it expressed a deep sense of humanity in a way that figurative imagery could not. Throughout his work in abstraction, despite his claims to the contrary, his focus on formal experimentation was not entirely divorced from the social and political context of the time. Untitled employs a fragmentation that evokes the tenor of American culture at the end of World War II. And, in the 60s and 70s, a series of paintings—including Processional, his contribution to the 1965 Spiral exhibition—addressed the atrocities perpetrated against Black Americans by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the events of the Civil Rights Movement in response. [13]


[1] Jeanne Siegel, “Why Spiral?: Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Others on the ‘Contradictions Facing Them in Modern America,’ in 1966”, ARTnews, September, 1966.

[2] Siegel, “Why Spiral?”

[3] Richard Mayhew, “Richard Mayhew: Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity,” conducted by Bridget Cooks and Amanda Tewes in 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2020, p. 58.

[4] Mayhew, “Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity”, p. 58.

[5] Spiral, First Group Showing (works in black and white), exhibition statement, 1965.

[6] Siegel, “Why Spiral?”

[7] Spiral, First Group Showing (works in black and white), exhibition statement, 1965.

[8] Mayhew claimed in his oral history there were two other exhibitions of the group but that they received no media attention and that there is no surviving documentation. Richard Mayhew, “Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity,” pp. 95–96.

[9] Mayhew is quoted by Romare Bearden in Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993. 

[10] Mayhew, “Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity”, pp. 102–104.

[11] Bearden Plays Bearden, a Third World Cinema Production, 1980.

[12] Siegel, “Why Spiral?”

[13] Norman Lewis, Processional, 1965, oil on canvas, 38 1/3 x 64 3/4 inches (private collection)

4. Discussion questions

  • Consider the impact of Spiral taking place during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. How did the core questions debated by members of Spiral mirror and advance broader questions asked with the Civil Rights Movement? 
  • Where do you come down on the questions of aesthetics that the Spiral members debated? What is the most powerful or effective aesthetic for an art that seeks to respond to social turmoil? Consider, as the Spiral members did, the role or potential of approaches or elements such as collage, abstraction, social realism, landscape, ambiguity, and color. 

5. Research projects and creative response activities

  • Compare different strategies for protest and combating racial discrimination in the Civil Rights era: legal challenges, direct action, and nonviolent protest. How did art (by both individuals and collectives) align with these tactics and contribute to the momentum of the period? Extension question: Has art of the Civil Rights era inspired artists today and/or does it inspire you? How? 
  • Spiral was short-lived and didn’t reach consensus on their core debates yet still inspired others, just as they had been inspired by the March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s speech, and other events of the time. What is the role of inspiration in the Civil Rights Era? Research this question across at least two disciplines—political activism, literature, music, visual arts, etc.—and present your findings back to your class.
  • Compare efforts and debates of Black artists to address questions of identity, purpose, and visibility during the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression with those of the 1960s.  
  • Research one of these two other Spiral artists—Richard Mayhew or Hale Woodruff—and consider their work in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Brief snapshots of these artists’s careers and relationships to Spiral are included at the end of this resource. 
  • What do you consider the greatest civil rights issue of today? Research this topic and create your own artwork in response. Like the members of Spiral, consider the merits of abstraction, figuration, collage, and other approaches, and select a style that feels most powerful to you for the purpose of this activity. (Note: if learners prefer to write, poetry can be an alternative to creating a visual image.) Create a group exhibition to collectively view and discuss your diverse creations. 

6. Bibliography

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, from Khan Academy.

The Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Defamation League.

Jeanne Siegel, “Why Spiral?: Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Others on the ‘Contradictions Facing Them in Modern America,’ in 1966,ARTnews, September, 1966.

The Spiral Collective and Civil Rights Art, blog post from American History Through an African American Lens at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, November 2008.

Pamphlet for the 1965 Spiral exhibition, First Group Showing (works in black & white).

Romare Bearden and the Civil Rights Movement from SFMoMA.

Richard Mayhew, “Richard Mayhew: Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity” conducted by Bridget Cooks and Amanda Tewes in 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2020.

Mark Godfrey, Mark and Zoé Whitley, eds. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers Inc,, and Tate Enterprises Ltd., 2017).

Mark Godfrey and Biswas, Allie, eds. The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 (New York: Gregory R. Miller and Co., 2021).

7. Snapshots of two more Spiral artists

Richard Mayhew

Richard Mayhew was born and raised on Long Island at the same time that the Harlem Renaissance was flourishing in nearby New York City. During World War II, Mayhew served in the Montford Marines, the first group of Black men in the United States Marine Corps. After the war, he pursued training and work in the arts—he often describes his creative practice and his later teaching as interdisciplinary—including gigs as a jazz singer and courses at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and Art Students League, among other institutions. Mayhew’s visual art training in New York City in the late 1940s and 50s was followed by further studies in Europe. He returned to New York in 1963, coinciding with the time that the Spiral group came into being. 

Landscape imagery has dominated Mayhew’s long career, serving as a metaphor for his emotions and as a link to his Cherokee, Shinnecock, and African American heritage. It was, in fact, a landscape painting that he contributed to the 1965 Spiral exhibition (he later repainted the black and white work to include green and other colors). [14] Mayhew’s landscapes address his personal feelings and the associations he makes between the landscape and his ancestry—he has consistently engaged with deeply political questions about the historical tension between invisibility and presence for Black and Indigenous people in America’s topography. Formally, the images draw from a range of techniques used in Euro-American landscape painting as well as in Abstract Expressionism. Mayhew employs pigments in receding layers of dynamic applications of paint to create evocative, immersive spaces. This particular approach to representation was Mayhew’s unique contribution to Spiral. 

Indigenous Spiritual Space (Ser. No. 7), made decades after Mayhew’s Spiral experience, reflects his continued engagement with these same ideas and practices. It also reveals the long-term impact of other Spiral artists on his work, such as the acidic colors seen in works by painters like Norman Lewis in the 1960s.  

Hale Woodruff

Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Hale Woodruff began his training and career as an artist, like Bearden and Lewis, in the atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance. And, like many of the artists of the New Negro Movement, Woodruff drew from Euro-American modernism, African art, and African American history and experience in creating his imagery. The Banjo Player, produced during Woodruff’s studies in Europe in the late 1920s, reflects these varied influences and contributes to a larger body of Black art of the period that aims to reclaim cultural identity and representation from a history of marginalization and negative stereotypes.   

Moving through the subsequent decades—the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—Woodruff’s style continued to evolve. His images of the 1930s and early 1940s were decidedly representational, including many works in the vein of Social Realism as well as some forays into landscape painting. During this time, Woodruff also worked on murals with Diego Rivera in Mexico, paving the way for significant mural commissions back in the United States. Woodruff’s murals concentrate on African American history and reflect his intention to “convey …what we are as a people.” [15] (quote included in artist biography from the Johnson Collection) In the mid-1940s, Woodruff moved to New York City, where his proximity to the emerging Abstract Expressionist artists influenced his work. Abstraction dominated his work from the remainder of his career, including the work he produced during and for his participation in Spiral. 

Like Richard Mayhew, teaching was an important part of Woodruff’s career. In the early 1930s, Woodruff began teaching art at the historically Black Atlanta University, where he also created an annual exhibition of Black artists in 1942. And, in New York, he taught at New York University from the late 1940s until his retirement in 1968. 


[14] Richard Mayhew, Morning Bush, 1960, oil on canvas, 101.4 x 126.4 com (Whitney Museum of American Art)

[15] The Johnson Collection, “Woodruff, Hale (1900–1980)

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.