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Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented

City Night

Norman Lewis
(American, 1909–1979)

1949. Oil on wood, 24 x 18" (61 x 45.7 cm)

Norman Lewis was an artist who grew up in Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City known as a cultural center for literature, music, and the arts. While he began his career painting figurative scenes, he soon became dissatisfied with the subject matter, explaining: “I used to paint Negroes being dispossessed, discrimination, and slowly I became aware of the fact that the protest paintings that I was trying to do never solved any situation.”1 In 1946, he turned to abstraction, hoping to distance himself from what he considered painting’s “stagnation in too much tradition.”2 City Night, while abstract, seems to hint at representation: The dark palette and two slightly illuminated vertical areas are suggestive of buildings at nighttime, and the criss-crossing curves could be power lines.

Oral history interview with Norman Lewis, Archives of American Art, 1968,
Norman Lewis, “Thesis, 1946,” in in Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, Ellen G. Landau, ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2005, 134.

1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.

The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.


AUDIO: Curator Ann Temkin discusses how abstraction and representation are not always exclusive.