Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

David Joselit

Committee Members

Mona Hadler

Katherine Manthorne

Katy Siegel

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Arts and Humanities | Modern Art and Architecture | Theory and Criticism

Keywords

Norman Lewis, Abstract Expressionism, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Romare Bearden, New York, Harlem

Abstract

This dissertation focuses on Norman Lewis’s studio practice between the years 1946-1964 in particular his associations with the painters Romare Bearden, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, and David Smith. Lewis’s influence extended far into the twenty-first century. As told by numerous contemporary art practitioners—Firelei Baez, Mark Bradford, David Kennedy Cutler, Charles Gaines, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, RJ Messineo, and Jack Whitten—Lewis was the mentor, friend, father and grandfather figure of an innovative black artist working with abstraction. In Chapter 1: An Integrative Line of Becoming, I trace Lewis’s change from Social Realism in the 1930s to semi-abstract portraits and genre paintings in the 1940s. I focus on his achievement of a singular integrative abstraction, which combined his political commitments with his painting to show his inflection of identity and difference into an aestheticized form beginning in 1946. Chapter 2: Space, I explore Lewis’s attraction to darkness, blackness and fugitivity. I tie this interest to identity in order to examine the intersection of these themes in the fiction of Ralph Ellison, Lillian Smith, Richard Wright and many others. In Chapter 3: Color, I examine Lewis’s Carnival paintings as instantiations of hybridity. His focus on authenticity as parallel to indigeneity was a common theme among the Abstract Expressionists. Lewis was also interested in a formalized cultural hybridity that could convey imagery he saw in his travels in Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Thus, the dissertation truly helps to establish a genealogy of Lewis’s abstract painting extending from 1949 (the date of his first solo abstract exhibition) to the present.

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