Norman W. Lewis was born in Harlem, New York. His parents had emigrated from Bermuda. Always interested in art, he had amassed a large art history library by the time he was a young man. A lifelong resident of Harlem, he also travelled extensively during the two years that he worked on ocean freighters. An important early influence was the sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage, who provided him with open studio space at her Harlem Art Center. He also participated in WPA art projects, alongside Jackson Pollock, among others.
In 1934, he became a member of the 306 Group, a group of artists and writers who met regularly that included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison, and Jacob Lawrence.
His earlier work was mostly figurative. He at first painted what he saw, which ranged from Meeting Place (1930), a swap meet scene, and The Yellow Hat (1936), a formal Cubist painting, to Dispossed (1940), an eviction scene, and Jazz Musicians (1948), a visual depiction of the bebop that was being played in Harlem.
In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract. Tenement I (1952), Harlem Turns White (1955), and Night Walker No. 2 (1956) are all examples of his style. Twilight Sounds (1947) and Jazz Band (1948) are examples of his interest in conveying music.
One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum's 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition, the New York Herald-Tribune calling the painting "one of the most significant of all events of the 1955 art year."
In 1963 he was a founding member of the SPIRAL Group.
His later work includes Alabama II (1969), Part Vision (1971), and New World Acoming (1971), as well as a series called Seachange done in his last years.
Although represented by galleries, and the recipient of many awards and good reviews, his work did not sell nearly as well as the other Abstract Expressionists he exhibited with, such as Mark Tobey or Mark Rothko. His body of work included paintings, drawings, and murals. Mostly he supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, through teaching. In 1972, he received a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1975 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
He died unexpectedly on August 27, 1979, in New York.