Playwright Lynn Nottage on Growing Up with the Great Norman Lewis

Playwright Lynn Nottage on Growing Up with the Great Norman Lewis

The award-winning playwright talks about her family’s relationship with artist Norman Lewis and her connection to his “vibrant” abstract work, Evening Rhapsody.

A portrait of Norman Lewis from the Nottages' family collection.

N orman Lewis was a charismatic, and occasionally forbidding, member of the Abstract Expressionist movement that stormed the art world in the middle of the last century. But to the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, he was plain “Uncle Norman”.

Nottage has vivid memories of visiting Lewis’s studio with her family when she was a little girl. “He was one of the first artists to occupy one of those great industrial spaces in Soho [in New York]. He had this magnificent cluttered loft, where paintings were rolled up and stuffed in all the nooks and crannies. Not just his own paintings, but also those of others. He was a collector – a collector of ideas, of books and records. He was a great liver.”

The connection between the families began when Nottage’s father Wallace attended Harlem Community Art Center, where Lewis was one of the teachers, as a young boy. They met again at Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, an organisation founded in the 1960s to help young unemployed African Americans. “My father lived in a tenement, he was very, very poor,” recalls Nottage. “Norman became a mentor to him and a friend. And they maintained that relationship until Norman’s death.”

Norman Lewis sitting backwards on a chair with a painting on an easel in the background.
Artist Norman Lewis in his Harlem studio in New York, February 1960. Photo: Arnold Newman / Arnold Newman Collection via Getty.

Shortly before the painter’s passing in 1979, as a gesture of that friendship, Lewis made a gift to Wallace of one of his paintings, Evening Rhapsody, a typically bold and exuberant abstract work painted in the mid-1950s. After experimenting at the beginning of his career with social realism, Lewis had turned to abstraction by the late 1940s – a move interpreted by critics as a reflection of his growing political disillusionment and a loss of faith in the ability of art to effect change.

“I don’t know what led him to abstraction,” says Nottage when asked about the theory. “But one of the things I can imagine is that he wanted to be in conversation with the world in a way that could express his frustration and vision through his paintbrush. And there is a more expansive exploration that can happen with abstraction, when you are trying to get to the heart of emotion, than with figurative work.

Norman Lewis, Evening Rhapsody , 1955, $700,000–1,000,000, is being offered in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction 12 May, New York . © Estate of Norman W. Lewis, Courtesy: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

“I also think it coincided with a particular moment in African-American expression. I’m thinking of the bebop movement, and all those jazz men who he would have been listening to, who were really deconstructing traditional music, to find ways to express themselves that couldn’t be contained in traditional western vessels.

“Norman was the personification of cool. He was like Miles Davis or [John] Coltrane. He was looking for different ways of getting at his personal truth.”

Evening Rhapsody has played a prominent part in Nottage’s life since she inherited the painting from her father, as a centrepiece of the Brooklyn home where she lives with her husband, the filmmaker Tony Gerber, and two children.

Lynn nottage standing in front of norman lewis's vibrant yellow, red, green painting on a deep blue wall looking at the bottom edge
Lynn Nottage and her brother Aaron with NORMAN LEWIS, EVENING RHAPSODY , 1955, $700,000–1,000,000.

“It always occupied a huge space in our home because it is a large, vibrant, colourful painting. It was right above our bed because we loved seeing it every single morning. Even though it is called Evening Rhapsody, and it shows a sunset, there was something that felt welcoming about it. That’s where it lived, and now that it has gone, we were just lamenting how much we really miss it!”

The name of Norman Lewis, the only Black artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, may not be as well known as those of the so-called titans of the genre, such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, but Nottage, who won her Pulitzers for her plays Ruined, 2009 and Sweat, 2017, describes him as a central figure of that era.

“Norman was the personification of cool. He was like Miles Davis or [John] Coltrane. He was looking for different ways of getting at his personal truth.”

Ruby Nottage, Norman Lewis and Ouida Lewis.

“He was in dialogue with all the key players – he was probably the original Irascible,” she says, referring to the nickname given to the movement’s notoriously temperamental protagonists. “But we know the role that racism and bias played in stripping people of colour, and women, of their rightful place in the canon.

“Now we are in the middle of a great reckoning, in which the world at large has to come to terms with the way it has diminished and destroyed the voices of Black people. Norman was a visual storyteller. That story is part of the American narrative and it belongs there rightfully. And if you eliminate someone like Norman from there, you are removing a big part of the story of Abstract Expressionism in America.”

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