Improvisation and The Art of Norman Lewis

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Said to be “the first comprehensive museum overview of this influential artist, who was a pivotal figure in American art and a politically –conscious activist,” the exhibition Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (1909-1979) opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on March 9th.

Born to Bermudan immigrants, Norman Wilfred Lewis was a native New Yorker who grew up in Harlem where he was a lifelong resident. His experience with racial inequality from an early age, had a major impact on his work life causing him to focus on the struggles of black Americans in his art. [1]

It is said that in the 1940’s, Lewis began to explore abstraction and in a 1968 interview, expressed his skepticism about the power of art to effect change. Eventually, his artwork shifted from from social realism to Abstract Expressionism.

Over 90 works of art and writing, spanning four decades, were on display and dancers from the improvisation based Graffito Works, acted as vehicles of interpretation to the art viewing experience. Eleven dancers, dressed in solid colors, painted the space with their bodies. Sometimes they acted as extensions of the artwork based on the color they were wearing, or at other times they worked intuitively to imitate the shapes portrayed in the pieces.

Knowing Lewis was an African American artist, my interest was peaked by the fact that there were no African Americans in the group of improvisers – people of color (Asian, Latina), but no one black. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about black art represented through non-black bodies but nonetheless, I welcomed the experience I was about to have.

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