EDWARD CLARK: Master of Abstract Expressionism
By Jenna Bond-Louden
This summer, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is presenting works from their collection in the retrospective Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949–1960. A saturating stroll through the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building on Museum Mile in New York City, the presentation reflects works selected by former Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney as highlighted works and artists of the post-Word War II abstract expressionist movement.
The show illuminates the names of greats including Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Georges Mathieu, Mark Rothko, and Kenzo Okada. The breadth of artists and the complexity of works require a half-day to view in full, and perhaps two visits to fully consider.
But as much education as the exhibit offers in interpreting the significance of the international abstract expressionist movement, it also highlights how easily history keeping can betray thorough historical survey. This is specifically of note given the influence these artists had as part of a movement that really lifted New York’s presence in the art world. Particularly, I thought of African-American artist Edward Clark, whose contributions to this movement include the development of the push broom brush stroke and the reshaping of the abstract canvas.
I enjoyed a daylong studio visit with Clark this past spring where he led me through a retrospective of his works and a review of his technique. Born in New Orleans, the octogenarian master artist continues to produce pieces, having begun his career following the war, graduating the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill. At the start of the 1950s, Clark moved to Paris where his figurative style began to transform into his particular method of color field that has attracted acclaim from museums, galleries, collectors and enthusiasts from around the world throughout his career. One his most notable collectors was business leader and philanthropist Reginald L. Lewis—who even commissioned Clark to do a piece for Lewis’ private plane.
Clark, still holding a great love for Paris, began our conversation describing what it was like to be there in the 1950s, referencing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris several times. “When I was there, Picasso was still alive. I remember going to cafes and sitting two tables over from him,” he recalled.
Perhaps motivated like other creative African-Americans to enjoy the freedom and adoration that France offered them, or focused as a young artist who also trained at Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, Clark does not delve much into why the city means so much to him. He offers only that, “Paris is where it was at.” Then he recalls living near the setting made famous by Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies”. Perhaps this and his admiration of Paul Cézanne explains why his work has also been described as abstract impressionist.
When the conversation moves to his peers, he only responds, “I was never that impressed by what anyone else was doing, and never really satisfied with myself. I still am not.” A mix of humility and ambition from a highly influential artist who does have a work by Beauford Delaney, another master African-American artist who he knew and admired, displayed prominently in his home among a series of portraits he produced very early in his career. At this point, he begins to demonstrate the brush stroke he invented, using a series of tools to set up the push broom to construct a series of strokes, textures and movements upon a canvas that are iconic to his style. As he exacts the setup of his brush, he points out the influence the lighting of his studio has had on his approach.
As we talk about interpreting art while viewing the trailer to his 60-year retrospective that G.R. N’Namdi Gallery hosted in fall 2011, Clark recalls his own journey to appreciating African sculpture. While African art had strong influence on the cubist movement, Clark describes his personal journey of developing a familiarity with West African culture, which in turn transformed his way of seeing the art so that he absorbed its power. Perhaps in understanding Clark’s obsession with brush technique, the impact of light and gravity on a piece, and the pursuit of his best ability, audiences can better absorb the power of this master of the abstract expressionist movement.
Whether viewing his “Untitled” (1957) which shook up the standard in canvas shape and dimension among his peers, or his “Untitled: Paris Series”, 1988, I like to think of Clark’s work as microscopic magnifications into the interrelationships of brush stroke and color that transcends style. There is something distinguished in the manner in which his works draw in audiences to pause and study the elements of his compositions. Given the breadth of his career and color field studies, Clark’s work clearly demonstrates leadership in a movement which brought America to the forefront of the art world.