Norman Lewis had been painting in a social realist style before he settled on an abstract idiom between 1945 and 1946, when he became acquainted with Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967) and began to attend meetings with other notable abstract expressionists. By 1951, Lewis’s abstractions from nature alluded to the seasons and plant forms. In Every Atom Glows (1951), however, the artist moved away from clearly natural forms. In this painting, the background bleeds with blurred areas of black-and-white while in the foreground, the checkered patterning of elongated tendrils flickers with energy, possibly a reference to the devastating potential of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Like many others of his time, Lewis was struggling to make sense of the new advances in nuclear technology. Every Atom Glows referenced not only the Cold War threat of nuclear destruction, but also responded to the resurgence in the 1950s of two earlier philosophies: energism, the theory that self-realization is the highest good, and transcendentalism, which proposed that thought and spirituality are more real than ordinary human experience. The title “every atom glows” is a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1844), in which the poet expounded his belief that the divine could be discovered through the study of nature. By treating the atom both as the basic element of life and as the force of its potential destruction, Lewis brought out the uncertainties of the atomic age.
Norman Lewis developed his own style within the Abstract Expressionist movement. After studying commercial design in high school he spent several years as a seaman in South America and the Caribbean. He began his painting career as a social realist in the 1930s, when he studied at Columbia University, trained in the studio of Augusta Savage (1892–1962), and joined the Harlem 306 Group. He emerged as a politically conscious artist, worked for the Works Progress Administration, and became deeply involved in the Harlem art community. In the 1940s Lewis created gestural, jazz-inspired works with atmospheric effects in a bright, expressive palette, with calligraphic lines arranged in dynamic, swarm-like formations. He had a series of solo shows at the Willard Gallery in New York beginning in 1949 and was included in the exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1951. In response to the civil rights movement he co-founded the SPIRAL artist group in 1963 and helped establish New York’s Cinque Gallery for minority artists in 1969. Lewis received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1975 and had a major retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015.