American Totem (1960) is one of a series of black-and-white paintings that Norman Lewis made which explore the emotional and psychic impact of the civil rights movement. Lewis, one of the few Black artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, created a form that evokes the infamous hooded Klansman, but the monolith is composed of a multitude of smaller forms resembling apparitions, skulls and masks.
Lewis’s work suggest that terror is both representable and abstract, conscious an unconscious, visible and hidden. The painting was made more than decade after Lewis’s first solo show at the Willard Gallery in New York in 1949, which had earned him considerable renown but neither the financial rewards nor exhibition opportunities if his peers.
Photographed in The Whitney Museum in NYC.