Plagens, Peter, Artforum International
STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM
The poignant yet somewhat quaint announced purpose of "Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-77" is to explore the artist's "aesthetic and metaphoric uses of black." Of the two, "aesthetic" goes down more easily, since Lewis was more or less an Abstract Expressionist and, as with his stylistic brethren, whatever he put down on canvas was there first and foremost for aesthetic reasons - primarily those having to do with how best to make a painting in the middle years of the twentieth century. But of course it's the "metaphorical" usage that gives the exhibition title its raison d'etre, and this is where the poignancy and quaintness come in.
Lewis, you see, was an African-American artist, the only one included in those theoretical gabfests at Studio 35 called the Artists' Sessions. Born in New York of Bermudan immigrants, he worked in his youth in the tailoring trades and also shipped out to South America as a seaman. Stateside, he tried union organizing and became an activist against racism in '30s Harlem. He chewed the cultural fat in discussion groups with Ralph Ellison and Jacob Lawrence. Even part of his art training came through the John Reed Club Art School. How could Lewis not have deployed black metaphorically to stand as a painterly symbol for his own experience?
But black paint, used liberally in abstract paintings (almost as a field in some of Lewis' pictures), is a far cry - as the work of the young artist Byron Kim has taught us - from the color of anybody's skin. Nevertheless, cocurators Ann E. Gibson and Jorge Daniel Veneciano point to a couple of titles from 1960, Alabama and American Totem (the equally titularly charged America the Beautiful and PostMortem also date from that year), as one indication that Lewis was trying to make some kind of profound racial comment with his black paintings. There's some resemblance - unfortunately Disneyesque - between clots of white brushstrokes and Klansmen in white robes in several paintings. And Lewis did remark at one point that he had reduced his palette as a gesture of racial consciousness. But did that make him something other, essentially, than a second-tier Abstract Expressionist?
Probably not. Others among the sixty-odd works in the show are called such things as Nocturne, 1956; New Moon, 1959; No. 2, 1973; No. 6, 1973; and Seachange XIV, 1976. Moreover, they seem somehow as though they were titled, in the Abstract Expressionist tradition, after the painting was finished. And if Lewis did mean to imbue his paintings with a measure of racial content, there's a lot of evidence that he didn't harbor any illusion about the likelihood of their ameliorating racial problems. "Painting pictures about social conditions doesn't change the social conditions," Lewis says in a 1977 video. And he says it with the weary enlightenment of a man who's been through enough to realize that you can't dress up the passion to be an artist (or at least not an abstract painter) in the cloak of righteous social utility. …