Norman Lewis, Abstract Expressionist

During the progressive early-mid 20th Century, the genre of Abstract Expressionism became a wildly popular time period in American art history.  New York School, as some called the movement, was a way for artists to break traditional and social conventions surrounding the art world, and adopt more emotional expression through abstraction.  Among the list of Abstract Expressionist artists was Norman Lewis.

The Players, Norman Lewis - Before Treatment

Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979) was an American painter who worked in New York City creating artwork spanning five decades. Influenced by the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, Lewis began painting in the 1930s and was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists, a movement that began in the 1940s and included such artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  Lewis did not experience the fame many of his contemporaries did; as the sole African American in the group of abstract painters, he lacked support from both White and African American owned art galleries. In recent years though, his work has begun to receive the recognition it deserved. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently featured a retrospective of Lewis’ work, and summarizes him as “a pivotal figure in American art, a participant in the Harlem art community, an innovator of Abstract Expressionism, and a politically-conscious activist.” Senior Paintings Conservator, Amber Schadbach recently conserved a superb example of Lewis’ work titled, The Players.

Detail of micro-cracks within the painting.

Upon arrival at The Center The Players was in reasonably stable condition, however there were some causes for concern.  Amber observed that the painting was “riddled with extensive networks of fine mechanical cracking that disfigured the surface” which were especially prominent in the corners and along the strainer bars.  While the majority of the cracks appeared to be stable, there were some that were at risk for paint loss and others that had already experienced paint loss. The treatment would need to focus on addressing the cracks to both reduce the risk of paint loss, and diminish the visual interference of the cracks when viewing the painting. 

Detail of micro-cracks within the painting.

In order to secure the paint and prevent any further losses, it would be critical to consolidate the cracks using proper conservation techniques. After surface cleaning the painting of dust and grime, Amber assessed the materials used by Lewis in order to determine the best possible technique to address the cracking. “Being as the painting was sensitive to both water and solvents, the consolidation of the cracks had to be performed from the reverse, which is not frequently done.” Conservation-grade adhesive material was carefully applied to the back of the painting, and with the use of controlled heat and suction techniques, the paint was secured. This method also addressed flattening deformations in the canvas. 

The Players, Norman Lewis, After Treatment

Thrilled with the results, Amber noted there was “great success with flattening the cracks and returning the painting to a state in which one could appreciate the vibrant dance of movement intended by the artist.”  With treatment complete, The Players is now safe to be put back on display and Norman Lewis’ legacy in the world of Abstract Expressionism can be enjoyed further by the painting’s owners.  


Interested in learning more? If you are in the Chicago area, consider visiting Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis when it makes a stop at Chicago Cultural Center from September 17, 2016 - January 8, 2017.



Norman LewisThe Art Story 

Norman LewisArtNet

“Procession: The Art of Norman LewisThe Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

“Reappraising the art of Norman Lewis” CBS Sunday Morning