Gallery  December 1, 2020  Jordan Riefe

Ed Clark: The Lost Abstract Expressionist

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

Ed Clark in his studio, 1972

One of these names doesn’t belong: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, and Ed Clark. If you said Ed Clark, you’re wrong. In fact, they all belong, at least according to Belgian art critic Michel Seuphor’s 1957 Dictionary of Abstract Artists. At the time, Clark was hardly a household name, but fit squarely in the era’s prevailing genre–Abstract Expressionism. The thing is, Clark was black. And the art world, if it showed any interest in people of color, wanted works about oppression and revolution. It had little use for abstract artists like Clark, Beauford Delaney, and sculptor Harold Cousins, all of them African-American. 

“For him, the work was not about race and he did not see the need for there to be any distinction between how a white man makes a painting versus a black man,” Hauser & Wirth’s Madeline Warren tells Art & Object. The gallery’s L.A. branch presents a sampling of his work, Ed Clark: Expanding the Image, eleven canvases spanning from 1960 to 1975, through January 10.

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

Ed Clark, Locomotion, 1963. Oil on canvas.

After serving in World War II in Guam, Clark studied at The Art Institute of Chicago under art historian Helen Gardner and artist Louis Ritman. The GI Bill enabled him to go to Paris in 1952 where he enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière for a year. For the rest of the decade, his time was split between New York and Paris, where he avoided much of the racial and political turmoil of the 1950s and ‘60s in the US. 

His race was seldom an issue among Parisians, but his nationality was. “A lot of the French didn’t think much of American artists then. I mean the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, when I went there, didn’t have one fucking picture by an American artist. They didn’t have any! They didn’t think much of American art in general,” Clark told artist Jack Whitten in a 2014 interview in Bomb Magazine

In the same interview, he recalls a time in the early '70s when, unbeknownst to him, MoMA picked up six of his paintings to include in a show on black art. When he found out, he confronted them. “I went to the Museum of Modern Art. You go upstairs and there they all were. And then the guy comes out. He’s very nice to me. I’m not saying he did anything wrong,” Clark says. “It’s how I felt about it. I didn’t want to be in a show called Black Art.”

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

Ed Clark, Untitled, c. 1970s. Acrylic on shaped canvas.

Long stretches in Paris helped Clark cultivate an entirely new scene and continue his education in the city’s many museums. No doubt the impressionists impacted him, evidenced in his later focus on brush strokes and light, two elements that define his body of work. Cézanne was an important influence as was the Russian born French modernist Nicolas de Staël who haunts Clark’s Green Top (Vétheuil) (1967), named for the Paris suburb where he occasionally resided with fellow American artist Joan Mitchell. Painted in acrylic, a thick washy stripe of green covers the top quarter of a roughly square canvas, with a bold terracotta stripe below it. Imperial blue and black vie for the bottom half, closing out sections of white canvas. 

Like Pollock, Clark laid his canvas on the floor, though not to drip, but to more easily reach all corners of his large-scale works. In 1956, this method became crucial for an innovation that has come to define his career–the use of a push broom to apply paint. 

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

Ed Clark, Green Top (Vétheuil), 1967. Acrylic on canvas.

“Those might be some of the biggest brushstrokes in art history. In many cases they’re a single stroke all the way across,” Warren describes. “He knew what he wanted his painting to feel like, and for that he needed a bigger brush. And a broom was what’s available. He talked about how he wanted you to feel the speed and athleticism of using the push broom.”

With so much emphasis on the stroke, Clark fits neatly into several of the era’s trends, including minimalists like Ed Moses with his graphite grid drawings that emphasized mark-making, or Agnes Martin’s similarly penciled grids. Clark’s focus on light and color suggests an affiliation with the Light and Space movement characterized by the works of James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Larry Bell among others. 

One day in the studio, he accidentally dropped a large piece of paper on a canvas and, seeing how the rough angles broke the wall of the rectangle, decided to build the frame out to accommodate the new dimensions. The result was Untitled, part of a 1957 group show at the Brata Gallery on East 10th Street, which he co-founded with artists Al Held, Sal Romano, John Krushenick, George Sugarman and Ronald Bladen. It was a seminal work that set the tone for abstraction for the next decade, resonant in works by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Barnett Newman among many others who experimented with shaped canvases.

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

Ed Clark, Silver stripes, c. 1970s. Acrylic on canvas.

His stay at Mitchell’s country home in 1968–69 impacted his palette as well as the shape of his canvases, which took on ovoid, eye-like contours. In 1971, after visiting Whitten in Crete, Clark later noticed his work there reflected the pastel hues of the Mediterranean light. It sent him traveling in order to see what effect different climates might offer in places like Nigeria, Mexico, and China, among others. 

The show’s large-scale works from this period include Ife Rose (1974), bleeding orange, red, and terracotta, offset by teal horizontal stripes. A quintessential work from this period is Silver Stripes (1970), an arresting but calming mix of white, gray, and blue that presents as silver, achieved using a push broom on a shaped canvas, uniting three distinctly Clark-ian elements in one painting.

© The Estate of Ed Clark, Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

Ed Clark, Ife Rose, 1974. Acrylic on canvas.

“Obviously he didn't want to be an impressionist painter, but the way they captured light was so exceptional. And that's what he wanted to achieve,” says Warren. “He was incredible at seeing different references of inspiration and really making them his own so they're completely unrecognizable. You would never look at one of those and think of Monet.” 

It’s not that Clark, who died last year at the age of 93, was unrecognized in his time. It’s that if not for some reminders, he might have been forgotten. “If you look now at the way museums are installed, he is next to Pollock, de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell. I think that’s pretty firmly where he belongs,” says Warren, citing the Art Institute of Chicago and the current Whitney show of works from their permanent collection. “Why was he not there until recently? Basically because he was black.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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