TO THE EAR, the title “Evening Rhapsody” (1909-1955) sounds like a jazz tune. To the eye, it is clear the work is in fact a painting by Norman Lewis (1909-1979), the Abstract Expressionist who was deeply influenced by jazz.

Muted tones of golden yellow, grass green, and brick red mingle with one another in an improvisational rhythm. The painting has an atmospheric structure. Above the horizon line, the sky has a warm, broad glow. On the bottom half of the painting, Lewis introduces a loosely circular procession, a key and frequent element in his work referencing ritual and dance. A brilliant mix of color and composition, the canvas sings.

Lewis completed the painting in 1955 and held onto it for more than two decades. Then in 1979, the year he died, the artist gifted it to Wallace Nottage. When they met Lewis was a teacher at Harlem Community Art Center and Wallace was a young student. They eventually became lifelong friends. Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, inherited the work from her father. After living with the painting for years, she put it up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 12.

 


Lot 122: NORMAN LEWIS (1909-1979), “Evening Rhapsody,” 1955 (oil on canvas, 43 ½ X 60 inches / 110.9 by 152.4 cm). © Estate of Norman Lewis. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY | Estimate $700,000-$1 million. Sold for $1,714,000. SECOND-HIGHEST PRICE AT AUCTION FOR ARTIST’S WORK

 

According to the lot details, the painting was displayed publicly for the first time when it was on view at the auction house in advance of the Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

“When Norman was very ill, he told my father, ‘I want to leave you a painting that’s personal,’ and the painting he left to my father was ‘Evening Rhapsody,'” Nottage told Sotheby’s. “I think of that painting as being a conversation that I’ve had with Norman Lewis for 30 years and now I’m passing that conversation on to someone else and hopefully they will engage with the painting in the deep way we did for many years.”

“Evening Rhapsody” surpassed expectations, selling for more than $1.7 million against an estimate of $700,000-$1 million. The result is the second highest price garnered for the artist’s work.

More than 140 paintings by Lewis have sold at major auction houses and only two have reached prices north of $1 million—”Evening Rhapsody” and “Ritual” (1962). The latter sold for a record-setting $2,780,000, also at Sotheby’s New York in November 2019. A rich blue abstract composition, “Ritual” also features a processional element, an energetic streak of festive, confetti-colored figures extending across the lower portion of the painting.

“When Norman was very ill, he told my father, ‘I want to leave you a painting that’s personal,’ and the painting he left to my father was ‘Evening Rhapsody.'” – Lynn Nottage

GROWING UP, LEWIS WAS A FAMILIAR PRESENCE. Nottage and her brother, Aaron Nottage, called the artist “Uncle Norman.” Their father was a civil servant, social worker, and art collector. Ruby Nottage, their mother, was a school teacher. They were raised in a brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. It was a lively home, where their parents hosted family gatherings and threw dinner parties with friends, many of them activists and artists, including Lewis.

Jacqueline Francis mentioned the Caribbean background shared by the artist and his friends in “The Presence of Norman Lewis,” the essay she contributed to “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” the exhibition catalog that documents the first major museum retrospective of Lewis, curated by Ruth Fine.

“The West Indians and West Indian Americans were everywhere in New York and in Lewis’s close circle of associates, among them architect Percy Costa Ifill, psychologist Wallace Nottage, and artist Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005) and Roy DeCarava (1919-2009),” Francis wrote.

The siblings lost their mother in 1997 and their father in 2017. Several years later, Nottage decided to consign the painting for sale. She and Aaron spoke with Sotheby’s about Lewis, his art, and their family’s connection with him. For more than two decades, Aaron has served a prosecutor in the Kings County (Brooklyn) district attorney’s office. He recalled “Evening Rhapsody” resonating more as he grew older and began to really see the painting and draw meaning from its color and details.

Nottage described herself as a playwright, educator, and art collector. The only woman who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (“Ruined,” 2009 and “Sweat,” 2017), she is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow (2007) and a professor in the Theatre Department at Columbia University (currently on leave). Nottage discussed Lewis’s choice to work in abstraction rather than figuration, which was his focus initially:

    On Choosing Abstraction
    Lynn Nottage: He said I am not going to put my face on the canvas. What I am going to do is put my emotions and my feelings, which were complicated and probably filled with rage and anger and frustration, but also joy and beauty and love. And one of the things I love about his work and particularly a painting like ‘Evening Rhapsody’ is that you feel all that turmoil sort of reaching toward something beautiful. You see all those little tiny figurines that seem to be in perpetual motion rising up and reaching toward that sunset.”

    On Really Seeing the Painting
    Aaron Nottage: Growing up in our house and seeing art and seeing “Evening Rhapsody,” as a 12-year-old the painting was black-and-white. As a 25-year-old, the painting becomes something much richer, a procession. As a 30, 40-year-old, it’s very different in terms of the way you are interpreting it. I think that’s the beauty of abstract. That’s the beauty of his work.

    On Museums Overlooking Lewis
    Lynn Nottage: I think that Norman Lewis is one of those people which museums are looking at and saying, How did we overlook him? How did we not know that he was part of this very essential conversation that was happening? When I look at Norman’s work I really think of like a great jazz man. I think of someone like Coltrane or Miles Davis in that he was improvising. The improvisational spirit is something that comes across in a lot of the abstract expressionist work and so to eliminate sort of the African American voice from mid-century art is to eliminate some of the foundation of what it is.

In 1997, Nottage and her husband, Emmy Award-winning film director Tony Gerber, moved back to Brooklyn to live in the family home in Boerum Hill where she grew up. They have two children who were raised there and for all of those many years, dating back to 1979, “Evening Rhapsody” has lived with the Nottage family, across three generations. Most recently, it was hanging above the couple’s bed.

“We loved seeing it every single morning,” she said. “…there was something that felt welcoming about it. That’s where it lived, and now that it has gone, we were just lamenting how much we really miss it!” CT

 

READ MORE about facts and analysis around gaining resale royalty rights from auction sales for artists and their estates

 


Siblings Lynn Nottage and Aaron Nottage discuss living with “Evening Rhapsody” by Norman Lewis and their memories of “Uncle Norman.” | Video by Sotheby’s

 

BOOKSHELF
“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” was published on the occasion of the first major museum retrospective of Lewis. Lynn Nottage has published her plays in several volumes, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning works: “Sweat” and “Ruined.”

 

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