The color black can have many different expressive meanings. There is the soothing black of the night, when the sunlight has faded and the world looks peaceful. But there is also the black of terminal depression, when life seems hopeless. And in politics, there is the black often aligned with anarchists, along with the red of communist revolution. Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square and Red Square” (1915) trades on those political associations. The great Japanese printer Shikō Munakata, who often worked in black and white, perhaps invoked these political claims when he said, “Black and white are absolute. Expressing the most delicate vibration, the most profound tranquility, and unlimited profundity.” Consider also the calligraphic blacks of Franz Kline’s abstractions and the highly personal aesthetic of the French master Pierre Soulages, who works almost exclusively in black. What happens when a modernist chooses to use black is sure to be complex, especially when the artworks are abstractions.
Do the uses of the color in Norman Lewis’s exhibition Shades of Blackness at Bill Hodges Gallery reflect any issues related to race? According to the catalogue, on one occasion Lewis (1909-1979) himself seems to have rejected that interpretation, connecting his interest in it with his realist paintings of rhododendrons. “I used just black to convey the form and I liked that and I went on to try to do other things,” he said, quoted in a 1992 Artforum article. But the fact that this question is raised at all about the artist’s abstractions has acquired political implications. Like his fellow first-generation Abstract Expressionists, Lewis started out as a social realist painter, focusing on the lives and culture of Black communities. But then, so he concluded, “this was a waste of time because the very people who you want to see this kind of thing didn’t see it. I don’t think it helps the struggle.” But what must have made this abandonment of realism more complicated for Lewis was the often expressed opinion (primarily of the white-dominated art establishment) that African American artists should focus on developing politically engaged figurative artworks. Making his breakthrough into abstraction required, so I imagine, a willful personal decision.
Black paint has many artistic meanings for modernists. Black is what you get with Ad Reinhardt when, in his later work, you eliminate other colors. But with Frank Stella’s “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor” (1959), composed of thick black stripes on a white canvas, black was a starting point. And for Lewis, too, working with black seemed to open up his art. The abstract paintings in Shades of Blackness shows the varied ways he incorporated the color. The pale yellow-orange shapes coming through the dark gray field in “Exodus” (1972) seems to mark out the moment of his transition, his exodus into the world of abstraction. Here, the all-over background surrounds the orange forms, while heavy black outlines peek through, as if we were viewing writing in some unknown language, and accentuate the color.
Following a 1973 trip to Crete, Lewis opened out the figurative allusions of his essentially abstract works. Is the blank (white) canvas the inevitable starting point for an abstract painting? Perhaps not, at least for Lewis! In “No. 5” (c. 1970s) dark blue swaths of paint and yellow marks are cut into a background of deep bluish black. He interrupts his black field with a variety of pictorial devices. “Ighia Galini” (1974), a black oil surface with some white paint rubbed into the background near the top, is named for a town he visited in Crete. “Eye of the Storm” (1973) depicts a very different landscape, in which the dark blue shapes appear immersed in the black background. In 1973-74’s “Fleshy Phase”(which, unlike most of these earlier works, is vertically oriented), pale reddish flames radiate from the bottom of the otherwise completely black picture plane.
“It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” the cultural critic Greg Tate wrote in 1989, “than for a Black abstract … artist to get a … show in lower Manhattan.” The past few years have seen this finally begin to change. In 2021 Hauser & Wirth mounted solo shows of Mark Bradford, Jack Whitten, and the semi-abstractions of recently knighted Frank Bowling, for instance, while Lisson featured Stanley Whitney. Uptown, two earlier Lewis paintings, an untitled work from 1949 and “Phantasy II” (1946), are on display at MoMA. “The history of border crossings made by Black artists,” Tate says, “have blurred, blotted out, and disrupted any proprietary claims the Eurocentrists among us would care to make.” That’s a significant statement. This show is a valuable contribution to that progressive disruptive process, one that deserves to be supplemented with a full-scale retrospective. Judging by the visual evidence assembled here, Lewis was a major Abstract Expressionist.
Norman Lewis: Shades of Blackness continues at Bill Hodges Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 29.