Date of Award

Spring 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leonard Harris

Committee Chair

Leonard Harris

Committee Member 1

Joseph Dorsey

Committee Member 2

Catherine Dossin

Committee Member 3

Phoebe Farris


Norman Lewis (1909-1979) is best remembered, perhaps erroneously, as the first African American Abstract Expressionist. In this dissertation, I argue that he is better suited as a Social Abstractionist and an Abstract Allusionist based on the life he lived, the work he produced, and his involvement in both black art and the Abstract Expressionist movement. ^ I begin by presenting a comprehensive overview of Lewis' biography and oeuvre. Painting from the 1930s to the late 1970s, his aesthetic sensibilities can be categorized into three distinct phases: 1) in the 1930s, answering to the call for a new presentation of the Negro, Lewis, under the guidance of philosopher Alain Locke, painted in a style commonly associated with Social Realism; 2) in his second phase starting in the mid-1940s, Lewis, disillusioned with the inefficiency of painting Social Realist works, begin transitioning into a more abstract style of figuration; 3) in the final phase of his career from 1946 to the time of his death, Lewis worked on a series of fully abstracted paintings for which he became best known. During this time, Lewis developed his own symbolic language to present racially informed abstract paintings. My analysis will cover different ways to better understand Lewis' position and contribution to the post World War II art scene in America. To this end, I call him both a Social Abstractionist and an Abstract Allusionist. I posit that these terms give new contexts to Lewis' aesthetic, and demonstrate his innovations in fashioning his own complex cultural identity.