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Video transcript

(mellow jazzy piano music) - [Zucker] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at a small, tall painting by Norman Lewis. It's titled "Untitled" and it dates to 1945, the last year of the Second World War. - [Harris] And I think that this is a pivotal painting, because it shows a major transition for Lewis who had come of age in the circles of social realism in figural painting. And then he moves to this almost completely abstracted mode of painting by 1945. - [Zucker] And if we were to go forward in his career, he becomes a significant figure among the abstract expressionists. And he moves away from the kind of rectilinear forms that we're seeing here. They become more and more calligraphic and more and more experimental. - [Harris] He was one of the only African Americans to be a part of those Studio 35 sessions with other major abstract expressionists in New York City. But Lewis found his own niche in this and his own style, and you can see that emerging here. One of the things that I find interesting is that you could almost call it a mixed media painting, because you can see elements of maybe sand that he might have incorporated in certain sections, newspaper clippings or fragments of paper or other discarded items. So it's also a type of collage. - [Zucker] And the surface is really varied. You have a calligraphic, almost lightning bolt of black on the right side. You have relatively flat panes of color for instance, the blue, which is almost stained glass-like and then there are areas where he chooses to leave the canvas exposed. - [Harris] You can also see the influence of somebody like Braque or Picasso, particularly with those additional elements. And it also anticipates his later, stronger embrace of Asian art. - [Zucker] It's so brave to leave behind the figure for thousands of years, painters had focused on the human body and here he is in 1945 jettisoning that tradition and looking to art that is non-objective that did not really have an audience. - [Harris] The painting is at the end of the World War. You get this sense of fragmentation and reassembly and reconstruction that would've permeated the culture during that point. This pivotal time of 1945 would be the guiding force for the remainder of his career. He continued to work in an abstract manner even during the 1960s when he became one of the founding members of a group called Spiral, group of African American artists that assembled during the Civil Rights Movement. And one of the major debates of that group was, "What should be the function of the Black artist?" Whether it should be that they would work in a figurative manner, representing Black life and culture, or whether something like abstraction was permitted. And Norman Lewis was a vocal advocate for abstraction. - [Zucker] And so, Norman Lewis is creating paintings that are perhaps less accessible to a broader audience than social realism might have been. But clearly, he felt that abstraction also had political agency. - [Harris] And although he worked in an abstracted manner and there was still this sense of human involvement or engagement when you look at some of the elements like pieces of discarded paper or newspaper clippings. So, although it doesn't show human figures, the human presence is still embedded in the painting. - [Zucker] And it's also embedded in the touch of the artist, we see his hand all over the surface. You can see it in the calligraphic line, but also in the brush strokes and the unfinished quality of the surface. The canvas's orientation is vertical. There is room for a human figure, even if the figure does seem to have been somehow visually disassembled. - [Harris] It's almost full length, like you're looking into a mirror. This period of intense experimentation is really important for Lewis to have that artistic freedom to explore, not only another style of painting, but also different materials. Even though, he was a part of the early sessions of abstract expressionists, he was largely forgotten for a very long time. And it's quite unfortunate that in earlier years, he was left out of the art historical cannon, but now we get the opportunity to reincorporate his voice into it. (mellow jazzy piano music)