Norman Wilfred Lewis (American, 1909–1979).
Untitled (Subway Station). 1945
Oil and sand on canvas
24 x 36 in.
On loan from Art Bridges
Norman Lewis was born in Harlem, New York City, to Caribbean immigrant parents, and lived in New York most of his life. He began his career during the 1930s as a social realist artist, depicting bread lines, evictions, and police brutality. Beginning in the mid-1940s, he shifted from an overtly figural style toward increasing abstract expressionism. This untitled painting is a dynamic view of city life in which people from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities intermingle on a subway platform. Lewis included several architectural elements suggestive of the subway, for example, the horizontal wall tiles in the background, and the hint of train tracks toward the bottom of the picture. The expressive lines, strong diagonals, overlapping forms and blocks of bright color animate the overall surface of the picture. Lewis also mixed sand with the oil paint to add texture and density to the surface.
Norman Lewis was concerned with social inequalities—particularly those faced by African Americans—and was active in left-wing political organizations and unions. In his early twenties, he was exposed to the effects of racism on a global level through his travel to South America. While working on a freighter bound for South America, he traveled to the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas and Jamaica before arriving in Bolivia. Upon his return to the United States, Lewis experienced racism on a more personal level, which he recounted years later in an interview. In the following excerpt from the interview, Lewis compared his experience of traveling by train in the South, to his experience of riding a subway in New York City:
"When I came back I landed in New Orleans and the whole problem of arriving in a station and of buying a ticket to come back to New York City. I remember making certain errors of my physical being. Like New York City, if there is a seat in the subway you sit down, and regardless of who you are sitting next to. And I remember getting my ticket; I even bought a ticket at the wrong box because there was a box for colored and a box for whites.
. . . and sitting down, I sat there for about fifteen minutes, and it was next to a white woman, she had to move over. She did it pleasantly. . . . I sat there for fifteen or twenty minutes and a Negro porter came over to me and said—he whispered in my ear—“this room is for white.” And it was almost as somebody says “attention” and I suddenly became aware of where I was and I got up as if it were a command and I went into the Negro section of this station. You know, you suddenly become aware of where the hell you are. You are back in America."
Source: Oral History interview with Norman Lewis, July 14, 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Interview conducted by Henri Ghent.
Take a deep dive. View this 45 minute talk on Norman Lewis by Ruth Fine, former curator at the National Gallery of Art, and curator and catalog editor of Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis.