Norman Lewis



Norman Lewis 1909–1979
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1069 × 636 mm
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation 2019


Cathedral 1950 is a painting in oil on linen canvas by the American artist Norman Lewis. It represents a dense grid of black lines against a red ground, with highlights of white, yellow and blue paint. The grid itself is irregular, with the black lines covering most of the top of the canvas and the red ground more visible towards the bottom. The vertical and horizontal lines of the grid are also irregular, thickening in places. The sense of darkness and confinement suggested by the black grid is mitigated by accents of luminous colour and by a playful rhythm in the recurrence of circular and spiral lines.

Throughout his career Lewis merged abstraction with visual references to the real world, especially his native New York. Several of the artist’s abstract works of the period, such as Jazz Band 1948 (Collection of Rodney M. Miller, New York), incorporate motifs suggestive of jazz musicians. Works such as Congregation 1950 (Collection of Rodney M. Miller, New York) represent groups of people circling in small crowds. Cathedral comes from a group of works inspired by the dense and intense urban landscape visible from Lewis’s studio in Harlem, such as Tenement 1948, Metropolis 1952 and Harlem Courtyard 1954. Another example is City Light 1949 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), whose vertical and horizontal lines have been likened by the curator Ann Temkin to the walls of New York apartment buildings and the washing lines and electricity wires running between them. (Ann Temkin, audio recording, Museum of Modern Art, New York,, accessed 27 May 2015.) The title of Cathedral, as well as the interplay of black grid and red ground, may also suggest a connection to stained glass windows.

Cathedral dates from an important year in Lewis’s career, one in which he mounted his second solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery, New York, where his stable mates included David Smith and Mark Tobey. In April 1950 he also participated in a series of workshops, later known as ‘Studio 35’, together with the prominent artists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hoffmann, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still, David Smith and Louise Bourgeois. Alfred Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), moderated the sessions alongside artists Richard Lippold and Robert Motherwell. According to the art historian Susan Inniss, Lewis was particularly concerned ‘about the communication between the artist and his/her public; he wanted to discuss how they should go about educating people about the meaning of the work, “making them aware of what we are doing”’ (Susan E. Inniss, ‘Norman Lewis: Identity, Expression, and Cultural Difference in American Painting’, in Norman Lewis 1909–1979: Linear Abstractions, exhibition catalogue, Bill Hodges Gallery, New York 2002, p.17). This concern might account for Lewis’s desire to anchor abstraction in the visual character of the city.

Cathedral was shown in 1956 in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in an exhibition curated by Katherine Kuh entitled American Artists Paint the City. Lewis’s work was shown alongside paintings by Pollock, de Kooning, Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper and Romare Bearden. The painting was reproduced in Gillo Dorfles’s review of the exhibition and Kuh’s decision to include the work is an indication of its importance in Lewis’s production. Lewis was one of the first generation of abstract expressionists, and was included in the exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at MoMA in 1951. Cathedral is typical of his abstract expressionist works. As one of the first black American artists to work in an abstract style, Lewis has been cited as a seminal figure by artists who began to show in New York at the end of the 1960s (such as Jack Whitten, William T. Williams and Frank Bowling) as well as by more recent figures such as Mark Bradford.

Further reading
Norman Lewis: Black Paintings 1946–1977, exhibition catalogue, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York 1998.
Norman Lewis 1909–1979: Linear Abstractions, exhibition catalogue, Bill Hodges Gallery, New York 2002.
From the Margins: Lee Krasner / Norman Lewis 1945–1952, exhibition catalogue, Jewish Museum, New York 2014.

Mark Godfrey
March 2015

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Display caption

Cathedral was inspired by the view from Lewis’s studio in Harlem, New York. It is part of a group of works responding to the cityscape he saw from his window. In this series, he combines visual references to the real world with abstraction. The title and the black grid over a red ground might suggest stained-glass windows. After the Second World War, Lewis's work became more abstract. This was partly in response to his disillusionment with the United States. He saw the racist ideology of Nazi Germany echoed in the segregation of races in the US armed forces.

Gallery label, June 2020

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