NORMAN LEWIS (1909 - 1979) Untitled (Rhododendrons).
Oil on linen canvas, circa 1948. 1117x1372 mm; 42x54 inches. Signed in oil, lower right.
Provenance: acquired directly from the artist; Margradel and Leonard Hicks, New York (1960s); thence by descent, private collection, Vermont.
This beautiful, modernist composition is an important early abstraction by Norman Lewis. This large canvas displays the artist's deep investigation of the dark tonalities and form found in the curled leaves of rhododendrons. The painting represents a significant moment, the confluence of Lewis's interest in modernism, black paint and natural forms that characterize his earliest abstract period and on a grand scale.
Reflecting his great love of plants, of which he kept many in his studio, Lewis drew and painted several images of the leaves of rhododendron plants hanging down in the cold of winter. In 1948, Lewis painted the vertical and tonal composition Rhododendrons in Winter, in the Mott/Warsh Collection, which he later included in his first solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1949. Another almost identical but smaller (18x24 inches) painting Three in Spades1948, is recorded with a photograph in the estate of the artist. Illustrated in the catalogue Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946-1977, Ann Gibson used this image in her essay Black is a Color: Norman Lewis and Modernism in New York to illustrate how Lewis's interest in the color black began. It goes back to his painting of rhododendrons; according to Lewis, it "started with some rhododendrons... which I painted. I used just black - to convey the form - and I liked that and I went on to try to do other things". Lewis continued to use black and a dark palette through the 1940s to define his abstract forms. In Untitled and City Night, two 1949 paintings in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Lewis creates a similar dark silhouette around the central image; Untitled shares this earthy palette of greens and greys.