This fall, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery will open Norman Lewis: Give Me Wings to Fly, a solo exhibition focused on the artist’s expansive body of works on paper.

The exhibition will comprise a survey Lewis’ career, with works dating from 1935 to 1978. Works will include calligraphic ink drawings, ethereal oil paintings on paper, semi-abstract watercolors from his pivotal 1940s period, and a group of rare figural pastels portraying the traditional African sculptures that comprised one of his earliest sources of inspiration. Taking its title from a 1954 ink drawing by Lewis, Give Me Wings To Fly will reveal the stunning range of technical and conceptual concerns that shaped the trajectory of this abstract expressionist master’s unparalleled oeuvre. A special selection of Lewis’ sketchbooks will also be on view, providing visitors further insight into the artist’s life and practice.

For many years, I, too, struggled single-mindedly to express social conflict through my painting. However, gradually I came to realize that certain things are true: The development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers from such emphasis; the content of truly creative work must be inherently aesthetic or the work becomes merely another form of illustration; therefore, the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.

(Norman Lewis)

Known for his calligraphic abstract compositions, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was a vital member of the first generation of abstract expressionists. He was the sole African American artist of his generation who became committed to issues of abstraction at the start of his career and continued to explore them throughout his lifetime. Lewis’ art derived energy from his vast interests in music – both classical and jazz - as well as nature, ancient ceremonial rituals, and the causes of social justice and equality central to the Civil Rights Movement.

A native of New York City, Norman Wilfred Lewis was born to St. Kitts immigrants Diana and Wilfred Lewis. The Lewis family lived in Harlem, and as a youth, Lewis held various jobs throughout his schooling but knew he wanted to be an artist from the age of ten. In 1929, Lewis found work as a seaman on a freighter and spent several years traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean, meeting local people and witnessing firsthand the poverty of Bolivia, Uruguay, Jamaica, and elsewhere. Upon his return to the United States, Lewis settled back in New York City.

Despite a decade of artistic achievement and consistently favorable reviews, Lewis never received the kind of recognition and financial success his white colleagues enjoyed, and it was only in the late twentieth century that his work began to occupy a central place in the canon of American art. Lewis himself was aware of this disparity and of the related expectation in the art world at the time that African American artists document “the black experience.”

Throughout his career, Lewis pursued his unique artistic vision while also remaining committed to his political beliefs. He was a founding member of the Spiral Group, and from 1965 to 1971, he taught for HARYOU-ACT, Inc. (Harlem Youth in Action), an antipoverty program designed to encourage young men and women to stay in school. In 1969, Lewis joined Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Clifford Joseph, Roy DeCarava, Alice Neel, and others in picketing the infamous Harlem on My Mind show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. That same year, he, Bearden, and Ernest Crichlow co-founded Cinqué Gallery, dedicated to fostering the careers of emerging artists of color. Lewis was also a talented and generous educator and he taught at the Art Students League through the 1970s; his admiring pupils included Beverly Buchanan. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1972), a Mark Rothko Foundation Individual Artists Grant (1972), and a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1975), Lewis had his first retrospective exhibition in 1976 at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has championed the work of Norman Lewis for over twenty-five years; Lewis’ paintings and works on paper were an integral part of the gallery’s celebrated annual African American Art: 20th Century Masterworks series (1993-2003), and they have been the subject of four solo shows: Norman Lewis: Intuitive Markings, Works on Paper, 1945-1975 (1999), Norman Lewis: Abstract Expressionist Drawings, 1945-1978 (2009), Norman Lewis: Pulse, A Centennial Exhibition (2009) and Norman Lewis: A Selection of Paintings & Drawings (2016). Given Lewis’s centrality to shaping the contours of abstract expressionism, his work was also essential to the gallery’s 2011 exhibition Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. The gallery’s most recent exhibition, Norman Lewis: Looking East (2018), examined the influence of Eastern art and thought on his work.

Norman Lewis is represented in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); Art Institute of Chicago (IL); Bermuda National Gallery (Hamilton); Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas (Austin); Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute (Pittsburgh, PA); The Cleveland Museum of Art (OH); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MA); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); Newark Museum (NJ); Philadelphia Museum of Art, (PA); Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska (Lincoln); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond); and Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University (New Haven, CT).