By Mary Manion
By the time the term “film noir” was coined in the 1950s to describe a particular style of urban crime drama, in movies often set at night and suffused with shadows as if suggesting the shady side of American life, printmaker Martin Lewis had been forgotten. But he anticipated the look of such classic films as “Asphalt Jungle” and “Double Indemnity” with his urban etchings from the early 1930s, and enjoyed an international reputation as one of the world’s leading contemporary printmakers. Fame was fleeting during his life, but years after his death in 1961, his work is sought after by collectors.
He was, for a few years, a luminary among American etchers, the London publisher Studio Ltd. included Lewis in its 33-volume series, “Masters of Etching,” ranking him alongside the American born Whistler and with such prominent Europeans as Goya and even Rembrandt. The foreword in the 1931 clothbound book, authored by the British critic Malcolm Salaman, described Lewis as the most psychological interpreter of American life as it was lived in New York City. Quick to point out that this exponent of American life was Australian by birth, Salaman hailed Lewis as the most essentially American among contemporary etchers.
Born in Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1881, Lewis spent his youth yearning for something beyond the commonplace surroundings of the former gold rush boomtown. Leaving home at 15, he travelled the land Down Under, taking odd jobs including a stint on a cattle station, and eventually worked his way to New Zealand, where he recognized within himself a need for artistic self-expression and the belief that America was the land of his opportunity.
His biography is sketchy. Lewis worked odd jobs in Chicago and earned money as a
commercial artist. He spent several months in San Francisco, where he painted stage decorations for William McKinley’s 1900 presidential campaign. New York City, however, became his polestar. It may have been there where he began his profession as an etcher. His first known etching, “Smoke Pillar, Weehawken” (1915), is an urban industrial scene showing a cine-real train yard, thick with layers of engine smoke, set against a background of manufactory. It was the first surviving hint of Lewis’ interest in urban life and its atmospheric components, and he continued exploring the sooty side of modernity with two works from 1915, “Nearing Land” and “The Battery,” both depicting harbor scenes and skyscrapers. Little wonder he has been compared to the Ash Can School of artists.
Learning the nuances of plate etching, Lewis applied excessive scratchy lines to achieve the effects of light and shadow and the movement of wind and rain, trademarks of the artist’s master etchings. He became proficient in the various applications of engraving, including dry point and aquatint. According to legend, Lewis taught etching to a fellow New York artist similarly concerned with urban life: Edward Hopper.
Lewis continued to etch dockland and ship pictorials, featuring the surging movements of smoke and wind, and added New York cityscapes and its rural environs to his repertoire until 1920, when his interest turned to the East and he traveled to Japan.
His Japanese sojourn gave the young artist insight into Eastern culture and the island empire’s landscape and coasts, making him acutely aware of nature and affording him the opportunity to study the changing seasons. One dry point engraving, inspired by memories from this period, “Rain, Japan” (1926), shows the contest of torrential rain and driving wind
beating on a cluster of trees as a group of scurrying peasants run for shelter. “The Japanese woodblock master artist Hiroshige himself could not master the atmospheric conditions more truthfully than Lewis,” one critic wrote of the young man’s Japanese period. Although he also studied watercolor and oil painting, engraving remained his focus. By the mid-1920s Lewis had returned to New York and within the next decade produced the majority of his oeuvre.
He quickly found success and in 1929 enjoyed his first solo exhibit.
His portrayals of New York life, indelibly etched with precision and character, reflect urban life in America during that era. Wayfarers, pedestrians and shoppers, street walkers, children and laborers; the high-end and the low, were all subject to the artist’s fancy as he put them in shadowed alleys, crowded intersections and congested freight yards. “Shadows on the Ramp” (1927) is a study of the sharp contrasts between shadow and light that Lewis often employed as a technique to evoke mystery and thought from the viewer.
His graphic work was shown in many group exhibitions, including the Society of American Etchers and the Chicago Society of Etchers. As the Depression took hold in 1930, Lewis moved to Connecticut where he concentrated his printmaking efforts on rural scenes of farms, country roads and pastoral settings. Sustaining his friendships and contacts in New York, Lewis, along with colleagues Armin Landeck and George Miller, established a school for printmaking. Although short-lived, Lewis returned to New York in 1936, where he continued his craft. He taught at the Arts Students League from 1944 to 1951.
A historic overview of the artist’s work can be viewed at the Detroit Art Institute’s website (dia.org). The 190-piece collection includes most of his better known engraving work plus pencil sketches, dating from 1915-1953.
Interest in Lewis among collectors has skyrocketed over the past two decades. As recently as 1990, his work often went unsold at auction. More recently, auction sales for Lewis’ etchings are in the $3,000 to $15,000 range, with higher results for several sought-after titles. “Shadow Dance” (1930), among his best known works, achieved a record high of $42,000 (hammer) at Swan (New York) in September 2010. The 9 1/4-by-11-inch drypoint etching shows the artist at his best with a trio of women walking toward the viewer on a busy New York street. Dressed to kill in fancy short skirts and stylish hats, the trio are shown in near silhouette from the light of the sun radiating between the skyscrapers behind. Their long shadows dance on the pavement, keeping pace with their buoyant stride. It is a remarkable study in contrast, movement and design.
Relatively unknown, his legacy remains a best-kept secret. Perhaps because his print editions were small and never mass-produced, his works were not accessible to the population at large. Whatever the reason, his work is among the best of the 20th century American etchers.
*Editor’s Note: WIth the exception of the image of the print featured above, from Swann Galleries, these prints are available for sale at The Old Print Shop, Inc. in New York – the gallery that represents the estate of Martin Lewis and all his original prints, drawings, and paintings. Visit The Old Print Shop online >>