Curator Ruth Fine began her tour of PAFA’s exhibition of Norman Lewis’ work not by explaining who the artist was, but by pointing out all the things he wasn’t: “Lewis is called a social realist, he’s called an abstract expressionist, but I don’t think he was ever either of those,” Fine said.

“Part of what makes Lewis so complicated is that you can’t lock him into any one thing,” she continued later. “When people have tried, that one thing only takes you so far.”

Walking through “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” it’s easy to see why Fine and others have had such a difficult time pinning Lewis down. Lewis was an artistic omnivore and an intellectual polymath, fascinated and influenced by a variety of styles, traditions and ideas. As Fine pointed out in reference to his wide-ranging library, items from which are included in the show, “There wasn’t anything he wasn’t interested in.”

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Inspired by jazz

Visitors can see Lewis’ mind at work in the first gallery, labeled “In the City.” Covering his earliest and most figurative pieces, the room also features his meticulous drawings of African art from a Museum of Modern Art exhibition that he saw in the 1930s, and a painting that echoes a very similar piece by Kandinsky and presages his own shift into abstraction in the ’40s.

Lewis drew inspiration from jazz, and his paintings from that decade capture the frenetic momentum and sharp angles of the flourishing bebop sound. But he also created abstractions from nature and intricately sketched colorful pieces inspired by Caribbean-American parades, Chinese calligraphy and African art.

The Civil Rights movement

The final gallery in the exhibit is partially given over to political works inspired by the Civil Rights movement. An African-American artist, Lewis responded to the country’s violent oppression throughout his career, but these large works, most in stark black and white and hauntingly suggestive of the white hoods of the KKK, represent his most striking confrontation of those issues.

Race played into the fact that Lewis has not been better known since his death in 1979, Fine said, but circled back again to his elusiveness. “Part of the issue is that he was a black artist and there was prejudice in the country, but I think he was just too hard for people to figure out. I don’t think I’ve figured him out. He’s tough and he’s wonderful and he’s diverse, and each thing feeds the other.”

If you go:

“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis”

Through April 6

Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts

118-128 N. Broad St.

$12-$15, 215-972-7600