The Department of Art History Guest Lecture Series is pleased to present:
“Norman Lewis: Materialist Abstraction, 1943-1973”
Ellen Feiss (Department of Art History, UC Berkeley)
WHEN: Monday, January 24th, 2022, 12-1:30pm EST
WHERE: Online via Zoom (registration required)
Abstract: Scholarly reception of the first-generation Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis (1909-1979) has emphasized either his exclusion from the historical narrative or the intersections of his painterly forms with Black cultural formations ranging from jazz to United States folklore. Lewis’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement is also largely interpreted in terms of the Movement’s standard history. These accounts overlook the considerable discontent in the postwar period within the Black Left, of which Lewis was an entrenched participant. Indeed, Lewis sustained a critique of mid-century liberalism beginning in the 1950s, including of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative turn. Against presiding accounts of Abstract Expressionism as an extension of liberal humanist discourse and a CIA instrument, Lewis’s materialist abstraction retained a focus on Black labor as the primary site of political organization and artistic innovation.
Surveying Lewis’s innovation of abstract method in works from the 1940s through the early 1970s, and particularly his emphasis on non-gestural mark marking, I elucidate how the artist both employed and sublimated a theorization of Black labor as the foundation of capitalist accumulation in the U.S. Lewis articulated a complex politics of art and work that remained committed to militant trade unionism through the 1970s despite his resolute transition to painterly abstraction. This reads against the grain of most accounts of mid-century abstraction, which uniformly pair its emergence with an abdication of labor politics following the end of the 'red' 1930s. Instead, I show that Lewis’s development of his own abstract method after 1947 responded to urgent debates around the intersection of Black racialization and capitalism. Like many Black radicals of this period (such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Lewis’s friend, and interlocutor) Lewis’s critical position has been suppressed, due (initially) to brutal state repression. I show how his exclusion dictated the political limits of Abstract Expressionism in the Cold War and beyond.