Opening Reception: Friday, September 8, 2023, 6–8PM
“[Norman Lewis’ works on paper] are visually unique, intellectually demanding, and extremely beautiful in the deliberateness of their hybridity and ambiguity. …The artist’s concern for his viewers, as well as himself, is profoundly embedded into the generosity by which Norman Lewis embraced, demanded, and believed in the power of art to alter the world intuitively and purposefully.”
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is pleased to present Norman Lewis: Give Me Wings To Fly, the gallery’s sixth solo exhibition dedicated to the artist. A vital member of the first generation of abstract expressionists, Norman Lewis (1909–1979) executed hundreds of works on paper throughout his career, considering the medium to be of equal importance to his pursuits on canvas or board. Give Me Wings To Fly features sixty works dating from 1935 through 1978 that collectively trace the major developments of the artist’s visual language and reveal his immense range in subject, technique, and style. The exhibition will be accompanied by an online catalogue publishing new scholarship by art historian and Norman Lewis expert Ruth Fine. Now an independent curator, Fine retired from her position as a curator at The National Gallery of Art in 2012, after four decades at the museum. In 2015, she curated the critically acclaimed traveling exhibition Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, organized for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
Borrowing its title from a 1954 ink drawing included in the exhibition, Give Me Wings To Fly constitutes a succinct microcosm of Lewis’ body of works on paper, highlighting standout compositions from each phase of the artist’s career. The staggering range of Lewis’ technical and stylistic experimentation is perhaps most evident in his paper oeuvre, which ranges from elegantly spare explorations of calligraphic linework to densely atmospheric, allover compositions executed in oil, gouache, and pastel. Lewis often used his works on paper as arenas for the exploration of new compositional processes and formal vocabularies, rendering this expansive body of work a vital key to understanding his overarching artistic concerns.
Organized according to the major stylistic turns in Lewis’ career, Give Me Wings To Fly attests to Lewis’ friend, the sociologist Julian Euell’s observation that he was “a master at working in several idioms at the same time.” The earliest works on view are a rare group of representational pastels dating to 1935 that portray a selection of the traditional West and Central African artifacts Lewis admired in the Museum of Modern Art’s African Negro Art exhibition of the same year. These drawings are installed alongside vitrines displaying a selection of Lewis’ sketchbooks on loan from the artist’s archive, allowing visitors to follow the evolution of his prevailing motifs from their nascent conception to their fully developed execution in the adjacent galleries.
The artist’s gift for simultaneously investigating multiple formal and conceptual concerns within a single period of his career—and sometimes, within a single work—is demonstrated by a group of drawings representative of Lewis’ initial foray into abstraction. Disillusioned with the Social Realist mode that defined his early career and inspired by the European cubists and surrealists he had been studying, Lewis executed a series of drawings inspired by architectural designs specific to his Harlem surrounds. Doors, windows, fire escapes, stoops, gates, and other structures provided the formal basis for several compositions of varying levels of abstraction executed from 1945–46, and the kernels of what would become Lewis’ visual vocabulary are apparent in these pivotal drawings.
Largely self-educated, Lewis was endlessly curious and maintained a large personal library of books on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Bauhaus architecture, English and French literature, Classical music, East Asian calligraphy, mystic ritual, and more. Like many of his New York School peers, jazz was also a constant source of inspiration for Lewis, who frequented jazz clubs and maintained an expansive collection of records. His spiritual and intellectual engagement with blues, bebop, and free jazz is evident in his approach to abstract expressionism, wherein specific themes are amplified, expanded upon, and embellished as a musician would riff on a melody—a tendency that lent itself to the immediacy inherent to the medium of drawing.