A perpetual student at heart, Lewis participated heavily at the Harlem Community Art Center in the 1940s and 1950s, where he met writers, musicians, and artists, including Jack Whitten. Lewis’s ongoing self-education, which included this engagement within his Harlem community, was supplemented by trips to the Museum of Modern Art, where he viewed the European masters like Vincent van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky, and a fierce commitment to African-American social causes. Files in Lewis’s studio included everything from color charts, books on art, philosophy, and race, to postcards from his travels, and clippings from TIME magazine, testifying to his broad interests, inexorable curiosity, and myriad inspirations. The 1960s, however, were a turning point for the artist, when he began to focus in profound way on the subjects of race and civil rights; the most powerful and provocative paintings from these years are the Ku Klux Klan paintings, which – both in image and title – refer to the white supremacist group gaining momentum throughout the 1960s in the United States. In response to the Ku Klux Klan, Lewis and other black artists formed Spiral, an activist group founded on a commitment to supporting the Civil Rights Movement and combatting the racism and threats posed by the Ku Klux Klan. Spiral held one group exhibition in 1965 at 147 Christopher Street in New York, the exhibition catalogue for which included a foreword that described the group’s goal: “…we hoped with our art to justify life… What is most important now, and what has great portent for the future, is that Negro artists, of divergent backgrounds and interest, have come together on terms of mutual respect…to fashion art works lit by beauty, and of such diversity.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Christopher Street Gallery, Spiral, May – June 1965, n.p.)
Undeniably ‘lit by beauty,’ Ritual is a veritable feast for the eyes, engulfing the viewer in a stunning blue vista punctuated by complementary brushstrokes of yellow, red, and orange. Eddies of blue, teal, and navy pool together in watery swathes, building layer upon layer of deep color. The overwhelmingly royal blue composition reveals shadows of deep green, puddles of indigo, and lighter washes of a brighter hue, evoking a reflective body of water that recalls Monet’s waterlilies. Strokes of burnished orange hover at the top of the composition, balancing the arc of vibrantly dashed paint below. Staccato marks of red, orange, yellow, and pink collect to form a crescent shape stretching across the canvas. Although entirely abstract, these marks are intended, loosely, to represent figures, more specifically, members of the Ku Klux Klan. Ruth Fine writes: “These Klan paintings are dominated by Lewis’s broad calligraphy, with the gestures signifying figures intermixed with field. Layered paint creates interactive color surfaces far more complex than that of a simple figure/ground relationship… Thematically related, Ritual is painted fluidly, suggestive of light and atmosphere, with figures in a fiery semi-circular procession, and a moon hovering in a centrally important position overhead.” (Ruth Fine, “The Spiritual in the Material,” Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (and travelling), Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, 2015, p. 80) Upon closer inspection, certain red daubs can be read as faces, yellow rhomboid forms as cloaks, and strips of orange as arms; however, these suggested figurative elements never entirely cohere, their colors merely suggesting or evoking moods: blue signifying beauty, yellow embodying possibility, and red representing the spark of rebellion. Among these socially acute and politically critical paintings of the early 1960s, Ritual marks the apex of Lewis’s artistic practice. According to Jeffrey Stewart, the dashes and hatches comprising abstract figures “…are unrecognizable, except from a few obvious hints, but who distinguish themselves by being crowds, congregations of hate or love, change of resistance, that form powerful circles and enclosures designed to arrest the mind or liberate it.” (Jeffrey C. Stewart, “Beyond Category: Before Afrofuturism There was Norman Lewis,” Ibid., p. 180)
Although politically motivated, Lewis adheres to a language of abstraction and beauty, which belies a quiet hum of energy. Lewis himself is quoted as saying: “Art is a language in itself, embodying purely visual symbols which cannot properly be translated into words, musical notes or, in the case of painting, three-dimensional objects, and to attempt such is to be unable to admit the unique function of art or understand its language. The artist must have an idea with which to begin but it must be an aesthetic idea and it must be developed from the unconscious experience, through conscious associations and technical knowledge to become a complete, aesthetic experience for both the artist and the viewer.” (The artist quoted in Ruth Fine, “The Spiritual in the Material,” Ibid., p. 99) Nevertheless, this aesthetic experience reverberates with the soft yet powerful voice and vision of one of the twentieth-century’s most socially engaged artists.
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