‘Why Spiral?’: Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Others on the ‘Contradictions Facing Them in Modern America,’ in 1966

Norman Lewis, Untitled (Procession), ca. 1960, watercolor, ink, crayon, graphite on paper. ©ESTATE OF NORMAN W. LEWIS/COURTESY OF MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALERY, LLC, NEW YORK, NY

Norman Lewis, Untitled (Procession), ca. 1960, watercolor, ink, crayon, graphite on paper.


In the September 1966 issue of ARTnews, Jeanne Siegel published a roundtable among the 14 members of Spiral, the American-American artist collective, in which they discussed, as the magazine put it, “the contradictions facing them in modern America.” The group, which included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Emma Amos, had come together in 1963, organized its first and only group show in 1965, and would dissolve shortly after. Though the group was long marginalized by mainstream art history, a 2011 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem helped raise its profile, and many of its members are increasingly visible in museum collections and exhibitions. (Lewis is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.) The full piece, a wide-ranging conversation about art and race, follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Why Spiral?”
By Jeanne Siegel

Negro artists, well known and neophyte, meet as a group in New York to discuss the contradictions facing them in modern America

When I asked each of the 13 men and one woman that make up the present membership of the Spiral group what Spiral stands for, I got 14 conflicting answers. One of the reasons for the disparity is that unlike most artists’ circles, its raison-d’être was not primarily an esthetic one, nor was it formed for the traditional purpose of exhibiting together and making public statements. As if the problems that confront all modern artists are not enough, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Felrath Hines, Norman Lewis, Alvin Hollingsworth, Merton Simpson, Earl Miller, William Majors, Reggie Gammon, Hale Woodruff, Perry Ferguson, Calvin Douglass, James Yeargans and Emma Amos—a dynamic and totally divergent group ranging in age from 28 to 65, that includes a court clerk, art dealer, floorwaxer, Ph.D. candidate and restorer of old masters—first began meeting three years ago to discuss what they considered a far more vital issue: what should be their attitudes and commitments as Negro artists in the present struggle for Civil Rights.

At a glance the issue seemed clear enough, but it provoked many searching questions. Should you participate directly in the activities of the Movement? Do you have special qualities to express as a Negro artist? What is your value as an artist who is both an American and a Negro? What do you have in common with other Negro painters? What should your role be in the mainstream of art?

In other words, they felt an urge to say something, but they didn’t know what, how or where to say it. They also knew that something set them apart from other painters, but they weren’t sure if that “something” had a tangible form that could be transmitted through art. They referred to this possibility as “the Negro Image,” and they suspected that, although unquestionably intertwined with other issues, it had to be clarified before other problems could fall into place.


Norman Lewis, Cantata, 1948, oil on canvas.


Norman Lewis: I am not interested in an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions, but in my work I am for something of deeper artistic and philosophic content.

Hale Woodruff: I agree with Norman Lewis. I am not interested in some “gimmick” that will pander to an interest in things Negroid.

Charles Alston: I have come to the point where I wonder whether most of the expression I observe in Negro painting might not be only reflections of a dominant culture and not truly indigenous. The Negro artist might have a more personal “thumbprint.”

Romare Bearden: I suggest that Western society, and particularly that of America, is gravely ill and a major symptom is the American treatment of the Negro. The artistic expression of this culture concentrates on themes of “absurdity” and “anti-art” which provide further evidence of its ill health. It is the right of everyone now to re-examine history to see if Western culture offers the only solutions to man’s purpose on this earth.

Norman Lewis: Our group should always point to a broader purpose and never be led down an alley of frustration. Political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; esthetic ideas should have preference. Is there a Negro Image?

Felrath Yeargans: Is there a White Image?

Felrath Hines: There is not. There are just varying means of expression.

Norman Lewis: If we had been allowed to pursue our own image historically, it would have been a Negro Image.

Felrath Hines: There are Jewish painters who, like Chagall, paint Jewish subject matter, and some who don’t.

James Yeargans: The word “image” is ambiguous. I would like some explanation of it … I have brought one of my paintings that I feel was inspired by certain rhythms that are peculiar to my experience as a Negro.

Norman Lewis: I feel that Franz Kline in his paintings with large contrasts of black against white and Ad Reinhardt in his all-black painting might represent something more Negroid than work done by Negro painters.

Perry Ferguson: I suggest that there is no such thing in America as Negro Art.

James Yeargans: I prefer the word “Afro” to Negro. We can speak of an Afro-American Art.

Alvin Hollingsworth: I wonder why it should be necessary to seek one particular image. Even the exponents of Pop Art paint in divergent ways. When I was a child I used to think Bob Gwathmey was a Negro.

Romare Bearden: You can’t speak as a Negro if you haven’t had the experience.

In spite of their doubts and different opinions, they still hoped to evoke in their paintings the “signature,” the personal “thumbprint” that they had talked so much about. This was not merely a concept of subject matter, but closer to the formal quality that is found in jazz. Jazz, they feel, grew out of the grassroots of Negro culture. In a concerted effort to bring out this “Negro-ness” they tried to eliminate traditional Western ideas from their minds. Romare Bearden suggested that certain new esthetic ideas of such African writers as Diop and Senghor should be discussed. Merton Simpson, a dealer in primitive art, lectured on African sculpture. They studied geometric tribal designs found on huts, textile patterns, Zulu shields.

In the spring of 1964, for their first group exhibition, they flirted with the idea of “Mississippi, 1964” as a theme and then rejected it as too pointedly “social protest.” In its place, they chose an esthetic limitation—to restrict their palettes to black and white—which, they felt, carried symbolic overtones. Bearden created a group of collages that drew on his memories of the South, Harlem, ritual jazz.

“I use subject matter,” he said, “to bring something to it as a Negro—another sensibility—give it an identity.” Giant faces were faceted into abstractions that left no doubt about the artist’s desire to depict the nobility of the Negro in a fractured society.

Romare Bearden and Charles Alston discussing a painting. U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Romare Bearden and Charles Alston discussing a painting.


Although Bearden returned after 20 years to the Negro image, themes of the human condition had never ceased to concern him. If we compare the recent collages of his paintings of the 1940s, the difference lies in a certain spirit of detachment that the artist has achieved since the year when “social protest” was current. A product of the W.P.A. he speaks nostalgically of the days when all the Negro artists lived in Harlem and he and Jake Lawrence had studios next door to each other on 125th Street. Today Bearden, a social case-worker when he isn’t painting, worries about the fact that the Negro artist has so little rapport with his own community.

Charles Alston, a cousin of Bearden, who also got his start with the W.P.A., says, “Bourgeois Negroes have always striven to participate in the mainstream, always tried to achieve the mainstream’s values, a car, a fur coat…”

Although in the heat of the moment he has created paintings likes Starved People, of Klansmen and poor whites—“those people,” according to the artist, “who make the rules, the victims”—such canvases are not typical. “The themes that I am working on today,” Alston says, “for example, The Family, a mural for the lobby of the Harlem Hospital, or Nobody Knows, a portrait of a blues singer, have concerned me throughout my career.” He feels now, “Spiral was too weighted on the side of the Cause … too involved in self-conscious themes.”

Perhaps most deeply affected was the sensitive and talented Norman Lewis. His subject, tiny forms in clusters that suggest migrations of people or birds in space, hasn’t changed, but what was delicate and diffuse became sharpened, in a painting like Procession, into a definable object with direction and power. Feeling the frustration that is common to many Abstract-Expressionists at the moment, Lewis had looked to Spiral as a solution to his problems which he interprets largely as a Negro one. Having exhibited alongside the most famous Abstract-Expressionists throughout his career, he says, “in Spiral, we made no attempt to exclude white artists, but what would be the advantage to Ad Reinhardt or de Kooning to join?”

Merton Simpson, Confronation (#1A), 1957/1965, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE JOHNSON COLLECTION

Merton Simpson, Confronation (#1A), 1957/1965, oil on canvas.


Alvin Hollingsworth, Phi Beta Kappa, teacher, occasional poet, anxious participator, thinks of Spiral as a form of group therapy. “It’s a place for Negroes to air their own prejudices and see each other in realistic terms and realize that we have the same concerns as most bourgeois white painters.” Although for the Spiral exhibition he created a group of violently Expressionistic oils that depict the isolation of the contemporary urban Negro, he, too, feels that his themes haven’t changed. “They’ve always revolved around the city. For me it was always a question of escape. A series on Exodus was my fantasizing about faraway places. In the ’50s I painted The Beat Scene that depicted bohemian life in the Village … I was always doing backyards.”

Of a more esoteric nature, soft-spoken, Indianapolis-born William Majors wants to go to Europe where he feels more like a human being. Rather pessimistic in his prognosis for the future of Spiral, he is not quite certain of his role in it. “I’m a loner … I don’t ask any opinions. The problem with Spiral is that we can’t criticize each other’s work. We can’t talk about esthetics because the work is on too many levels. If the educators who haven’t painted for years would paint instead of giving advice, there wouldn’t be any Spiral. White painters don’t need advice; they just paint. I don’t care about going to Africa … I just work.”

Confining himself to print-making, he has devoted a year to a portfolio, Etchings from Ecclesiastes, that suggests, through abstraction, time and motion, trees, water, air and sky, the spirituality of man.

Other younger members, including Reggie Gammon, Emma Amos and Earl Miller, who have looked to the old guard as mentors (Miller studied with Alston; Miss Amos has been in awe of Hale Woodruff since she was a child in Atlanta), feel they have gained something through the social contact. “We really got to know them as people,” said Gammon, the most sharply diverted by the black-and-white experiment. Prior to the exhibition, he had concentrated on nudes and traditional portraits (he is the only one to paint white figures), but made an abrupt shift to Action-Paintings in which Negro heads (reminiscent of Charles Alston’s of the same period) barely emerge from the ground. Gammon, however, like Felrath Hines and Calvin Douglass, seems to be more interested in pictorial problems than making any social statement. Hines, who never deviated from a landscape motif, felt that the black-and-white experiment was valuable esthetic discipline. On the other hand, Calvin Douglass, who tried to express himself more volubly about “the Cause,” returned after the exhibition to the “environmental expansions” that he had been working on before.


Norman Lewis, Spasms, 1964, oil on paper.


If in most instances the experiment in black and white did not change any individual artist’s conceptions, it did bring certain facts to light. They shared the discovery that in general, the attempt to express their feelings as Negroes through an art of “social protest” was ineffective if not impossible. They also recognized that, at least in this one effort, there was no evidence of any such thing as a Negro quality or a Negro art. The lack of a quick and ready thematic solution to their dilemma was, I believe, a disappointment to them.

Just as significant is the fact that a diversity on esthetic levels had been brought to light. Their original motive for banding together was not, as had been said, an esthetic one, and it is this ambiguity of goals that creates problems. If they plan to express themselves as a group through their pictures, discrepancies will continue to cause conflict and frustration. This limitation, coupled with the lack of any collective “image,” leaves only the Civil Rights issue as a common pivot. When the members decide whether they are a group of Negroes fighting for a particular cause or are a group of artists, the necessity for Spiral, at least in its present form, will be over. There are still basic questions to probe, however, before they can reach any conclusions.

Hale Woodruff: Should Spiral continue? Is the purpose of Spiral to exploit the fact that we are Negroes—in order to get shows? Or do we believe as artists that we have something valid, together, as a group? We come together after all, because we see conditions and we face problems.

Reggie Gammon: Spiral should begin, not continue.

Emma Amos: We never let white folks in. I don’t believe there is such a things as a Negro artists. Why don’t we let white folks in?

Alvin Hollingsworth: We blackballed all the Colored folks too.

Romare Bearden: The Negro artist is unknown to America.

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