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Norman Lewis’s “pure eye music”

The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.

Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).

While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.

This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).

Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art