Norman Lewis In The YUAG // Shayna Elliot

Jillian Mehlman

There was always something missing from the Yale University Art Gallery’s Abstract Expressionist collection. While the museum’s walls were lined with works from Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline (a relatively extensive collection for a university art gallery), there remained a sense of gaping incompleteness. Today, when you walk those same YUAG halls, you will still see those same Pollocks and Rothkos, but, thankfully, you will also see an expansive red and white and gray canvas painted by Norman Lewis.

On the third floor of the beautifully organized gallery, where the modern and contemporary works dwell, in a massive white-walled room, hang consecutive canvases with seemingly random shapes and colors. Minimalistic and splatter-painted works are wildly happy and exciting, aggressively juxtaposed with the carved wooden African masks just down the hall. There are metal sculptures and organically cut canvases. And in one corner, on its very own wall, as if gazing out on its contemporaries, quietly resides the single Norman Lewis painting Yale is lucky enough to possess.

Gray billows like smoke on a red canvas. Small shapes cluster and interlock in something resembling a stamped or stenciled pattern, their whites, oranges and grays blurring together. All of these elements shift, advance and retreat at once; the difference between the foreground and the background is ambiguous. Rectangles overlay triangles and concentric circles and ovals. Appearing as splotches, the oil paint is cloudy throughout the canvas’ 4-by-6 foot frame. Individual, thick brush strokes contrast with smaller, more intricate shapes. Some of the layers look smeared and erased, yet the geometric shapes that attract the eye first, due to their bright orange and stark white, evidently resemble some human forms. There is a vague narrative here, hardly distinguishable due to the…

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