The eerie, yet everyday New York darkness of Australian Martin Lewis.
The Australian Martin Lewis is one of America’s greatest chroniclers of urban life. He came to possess a magical power – the ability to capture obscure light sources, the light within shadow, adverse weather conditions, to render everyday scenes slightly eerily and sparklingly classic. Scenes with a cinematic sense of backstreet epicness all his own.
And the night. No-one draws the night quite like Lewis.
All this coupled with an insane sense of composition and masterly craft skills made Martin Lewis “one of the premier American printmakers of the first half of the 20th century”.
He was the second of 8 children, born on June 7 1881 in Castlemaine, county Victoria, Australia. His father, a gold-mining engineer had come to Australia from Pembrokeshire in Wales during the Australian gold rush.
Like his father, the young Lewis had a wanderlust in him but his wasn’t for gold. The boy had an artistic streak in him, cultivated by a man called Thomas Fisher Levick, his teacher in technical school. By the time he was 15 he’d left home and was travelling around Australia and New Zealand. He toiled at menial work, dug potholes, worked on remote cattle stations and on ships as a merchant seaman before finally settling into a bohemian community outside Sydney. He managed to get two of his drawings published in the “Bulletin”, a radical Sydney newspaper and began studying with artist Julian Ashton at the Art Society’s School in Sydney. Ashton was one the first Australian artists to take up printmaking.
In 1900, at age 19, Lewis visited his family in Castlemaine for the last time and sailed for the United States. His first known job after arriving was painting stage decorations for the McKinley Presidential Campaign of 1900.
His early years in America are as shadowy as his work. Already a skilled artist and print maker, Lewis got his first job painting set decorations for William McKinley’s presidential campaign and by 1909 he was living and working in New York. In 1910 he traveled to London, visiting his brother, Llewellyn, and an uncle in Wales. While there he met and began a relationship with amateur photographer, concert singer and pianist Esta Varez. Lewis and Varez returned to New York where they settled into a circle of artist and writers.
His earliest etchings date from 1915 and demonstrate a technical ability way beyond that of a beginner printmaker. A perfectionist, Lewis was infamous for destroying prints and plates he found objectionable so it’s possible he made prints earlier than this and trashed them. Between 1915 and 1953, he produced over 147 drypoints, etchings, mezzotints, aquatints, and lithographs. In 1920 Lewis separated from Esta Varez. Varez went on to marry one of Lewis’ good friends, Dudley Nichols, who became a movie director.
Perhaps it was the wanderlust calling again, or the breakup with Varez and his dissatisfaction with working commercially, or simply a newfound passion for Japanese art and culture. Or all of those things. Whatever the reason, in 1920 he left New York and moved to Japan. He intended to move there permanently but couldn’t speak Japanese or make enough money to live on and after 2 years drawing and studying printmaking there he came back to New York and began working commercially once more.
Japan was an artistic turning point for Lewis. Before Japan, most of his work was marine and city scapes. Although he disliked working as a commercial artist again, it paid the bills. In the years that followed he brought his now expanded knowledge of Japanese art and culture to bear on new work that was uniquely his own.
He always worked hard and extensively on his compositions, drawing and redrawing the figures until every position was to his liking. He’d take reference photographs too. He’d then take all these copious working references and work them all into a final painted study. Only then, when this final, perfect drawing was complete would he begin work on the copper plate from which he’d make prints. It wasn’t unusual for him to make ten, even fifteen study drawings for each print. The image, “Dock Workers under the Brooklyn Bridge”, had over thirty study drawings. And then there’s the etching. Perhaps something he’d absorbed in Japan, Lewis adhered religiously to a stringent technique. All that detail had to be made by etching directly on to the plate, every shade made from countless complex crosshatching strokes. Not for him the manipulating a print later using inking treatments. This was sacrilege, slackness, cheating. The way he did it was the way it was done.
Lewis hung out socially with many other artists but never wanted to be associated with any art movements or schools of the period. He mixed with the poets Lola Ridge, William Carlos Williams and Alfred Kreymborg. The artist Edward Hopper was a friend. Hopper asked Lewis to teach him printmaking techniques. Although Hopper eventually gave up printmaking for painting, he credited Lewis’s teaching as having a profound influence on his work.
Just one look at the shadows, light and even the subject matter of Nighthawks, Hopper’s most famous painting makes this influence clear.
In 1925 Lewis returned to etching and produced most of his well-known works between 1925 and 1935. His first solo show (of watercolours) with Kennedy Galleries in 1927 was a great success and the gallery invited him to do a second in 1928. It was now he decided to unleash his prints on the world. They were an immediate and huge success. He sold out multiple editions within short periods of time. One print, Relics, was so popular that the entire edition was sold out in four months at $28 each. This image was so popular that a month later the gallery sold a trial proof of Relics for $100, almost four times the original price.
In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Charles M.Lea prize for Glow of the City and in 1931 for Spring Night, Greenwich Village, establishing him as a master American printmaker.
By 1931, Lewis, an Australian, was “the most psychological interpreter of American life as it was lived in New York” according to that year’s edition of Masters of Etching. His work appeared in group exhibitions with the Society of American Etchers, the Chicago Society of Etchers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Print Club of Philadelphia.
In the early 1930s, Lewis, Armin Landeck and George Miller, founded a printmaking school but the Great Depression caused its closure shortly after its opening.
When the Great Depression descended on the States, Lewis left New York in 1932 for Newtown, Connecticut. He drew and printed rural night and winter scenes. Lewis continued live from his print sales until the beginning of WWII. He moved back to New York in 1936 only to find no market for his work. The Crash, combined with an influx of imported European avante garde art and artists had all but killed the livings of many American artists of the 20s and 30s. Although he did continue to produce many kickass prints like the iconic Chance Meeting at this time his “time” if there ever was one, was over.
From 1944 Lewis taught printmaking at the Art Students League until 1952 when health issues forced him to resign. Teaching, and just one commission in 1947 to paint portraits for the film Mourning Becomes Electra directed by his old friend Dudley Nichols (the man who’d married Esta Varez, the girl he’d dated in 1911), were his main sources of income in the last 20 years of his life. His last print was produced in 1953 but he worked regularly in his studio until his death.
Whilst his friend Hopper attained American art immortality, the man who etched ethereal beauty from the darkness of the streets died in obscurity on 22 February 1962 at 81, his work almost forgotten.
Fifty years on, a renewed interesthas blossomed for the works of Martin Lewis. In October 2010, Shadow Dance, a work that in the 1930’s would have fetched $28 to $100, sold for $50,400 at auction in New York. A record price for the artist at auction.
Martin Lewis. Yorkville Night. Study. 1947. Ink and ink wash drawing. The final study painting for the drypoint of the same title published in 1947. Lewis drew incessantly and many of his prints have ten or more study drawings. Once he’d worked out the composition he would produce a final study before starting on the copper plate. There are a few changes from this image to the plate however – the addition of two figures, a fire hydrant and some lighted windows in the far wall. The finished drawings are very rare, those still existing are mostly in museums or private collections.