The Transcendent Power of Black in Norman Lewis’s Abstractions

Norman Lewis, “Eye of the Storm” (1973), oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 x 87 1⁄2 inches (all images © Estate of Norman Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

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.

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