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​Reappraising the art of Norman Lewis

There's a certain satisfaction in seeing a talented artist finally getting his due ... however belatedly. Jim Axelrod has a case in point:

At an auction at New York's Swann Galleries, artist Norman Lewis is about to have a very good day. According to Nigel Freeman, a specialist in African-American art, Lewis' work is hot.

Norman Lewis working on "Composition I," 1945. Willard Gallery Archives; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, N.Y.

One painting on the block was estimated to sell for between $250,000 and $350,000.

"Twenty years ago, what do you think this painting would have sold for?" asked Axelrod.

"It would been embarrassingly low, unfortunately," Freeman replied. "Paintings of his sold for less than $20,000."

It went for $800,000 -- a record for the painter. Thirty-six years after his death, Norman Lewis is having a moment, exactly as he predicted.

"Norman told that to my mother and myself that he didn't expect to be noticed until 30 to 40 years later, maybe even longer," said his daughter, Tarin Fuller.

"Here you are, right on time," said Axelrod.

"Well, he called it just like he could call the horses!"

For 50 years, Lewis painted with a style all his own, and with an astounding command of color and line.

"I always thought of him as a wizard -- that, to me, would sum it up," said Fuller. "He could play the piano. He was a true Renaissance man. He had a lot of vigor. He talked about excellence and understanding what that meant, and always shooting for the ceiling."

In a 1976 interview Lewis remarked, "I may not reach the ceiling, but I think I still have tried to do things that I believe."

Title unknown (1947), oil on canvas, by Norman Lewis. © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Decades after his death, he's enjoying a critical reappraisal, seeing his work acquired by several major museums. And now, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia is mounting the first major retrospective of his art.

"I wanted to do it because I think he's profoundly important and interesting," said curator Ruth Fine. "I think the work is complex and beautiful."

"Journey to an End" (1964), oil on canvas, by Norman Lewis. © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, N.Y.

Born in Harlem in 1909 to Caribbean immigrants, Lewis was profoundly influenced by the energy of the renaissance unfolding just outside his front door.

As he was looking at Harlem, said Fine, "he's seeing everything. He's seeing people warming themselves by a burner on a cold night in the winter. He's seeing people going shopping. He's looking at style. He was like a vacuum cleaner, visually and intellectually."

In the mid-1940s Lewis moved on, embracing abstract expressionism - a rare departure for an African-American artist.

"I think he did not want his art to be pigeonholed," said Fine. "He wanted to live his life the way he wanted to live it. And he wanted to paint his art the way he wanted to paint it. I don't see that as a rejection of anything; I see that as an embrace of everything."

In the middle of one painting are two burning crosses. "It was a tough time in this country," said Fine.

His range was astonishing. But in that era, figurative works -- often depicting the black experience -- were what was expected of him. Lewis rejected that.

His work did not go unnoticed. "He showed in one of the best galleries in New York, the Willard Gallery. He got very good press in the important art journals. He was in 132 group exhibitions in his lifetime," said Fine.

"Confrontation" (1971), oil on canvas, by Norman Lewis. © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, N.Y.

But Norman Lewis' stature was bumping hard against the facts that governed mid-century life for a black man, even in the art world.

"He was at the Venice Biennale the year that they showed de Kooning and Jackson Pollack, but he didn't have the same attention," said Freeman. "He didn't get the same commercial success of his peers."

So what did Norman Lewis have to deal with?

He had to deal with being left out of exhibitions of white artists. "But he also was left out of exhibitions of black artists that I would have thought he would have been in," said Fine. "But he was too abstract. He wasn't fitting the picture that people wanted to tell about what black art was. So he got it from both sides."

Lewis' struggle for his rightful place among his contemporaries produced an extraordinary body of work, and a smoldering rage to go with it.

"The fact that he wasn't recognized the way he should have been during his lifetime, did you see frustration about that?" asked Axelrod.

"Norman was angry," said Fuller. "There was a subtle anger to him. Disappointment."

Former NBA player and coach Darrell Walker is a noted collector of African-American art. He owns four works by Lewis.

"I don't know how he kept painting," Walker said. "I know he had some rage. I know he was upset, but he didn't let that affect his painting. He just kept painting."

"Were you surprised as you started to see what Norman Lewis' work, the prices that his work was commanding?"

"No. Because I knew the work was really good. The last 10 years, it's been a bull rush on collecting African-American painters and sculptors. You used to go get some pieces and get it for a good price. Those days are long gone, buddy. I mean, long gone!"

If the story of Norman Lewis is one of racism denying an artist his proper due during his life, then it is also, says Ruth Fine, one still being written.

"I think the art world is realizing that the story of American art is much more diverse," she told Axelrod. "And young scholars, but even old people like me, are trying to tell the story of American art in a fuller, more complex, way more interesting way."

"We can't go undo the past -- I wish we could, but we can't," said Walker. "All I'm saying is focus on Norman now. Focus on Norman, because he's one of the best out there."

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