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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 grew up in Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City that became a center for literature, music, and art. While he began his career painting figurative scenes, he soon grew dissatisfied with his 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, has hints of representation: The dark palette and two softly illuminated vertical areas suggest buildings at nighttime, and the criss-crossing curves seem to echo the shapes of electrical power or laundry 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 or narrative focus of a work of art.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

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

Non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernable subject matter.


AUDIO: Hear Norman Lewis talk about the challenge of choosing what to focus on in his work