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.
Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979), began his art career as a figurative painter, focusing on life in Harlem. In 1946, he announced that he wanted to create art that broke away from what he called “its stagnation in too much tradition.” Inspired by the writings and art of the Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky, one of the first artists to create abstract paintings, Lewis abandoned representation in favor of the “conceptual expression” of ideas. Like other Abstract Expressionists working in New York, Lewis was deeply interested in music, and especially jazz, which influenced the painting of Phantasy II (1946). In an automatic process, he made a linear composition with boldly colored lines and forms akin to the improvisational structure of jazz.