By John Yau
I don’t think that I can begin to enumerate all the different ways that Ed Clark is important to the history of postwar American painting. Perhaps I should start by identifying some of the ways he has been left out. As Corinne Robins observed in a 1997 review, the seemingly inclusive chronicler and art historian, Irving Sandler, failed to mention “Ed Clark or any other artist of color” in his canonical book, The New York School (1978). Sandler is hardly the only art historian who failed to mention Clark in his survey of postwar American painting.
Moreover, the situation has not necessarily changed that much because a new generation of art historians interested in postmodernism has replaced many of the old guard. In 1956, Clark began using a push broom to make his paintings, which he placed on the floor. Although the broom evoked menial labor as well as an oversized paintbrush, it did not get his work included in the group exhibition Work Ethic, curated by Helen Molesworth, which originated at the Baltimore Museum of Art (October 12, 2003–January 11, 2004) and traveled to the Des Moines Center for the Arts (May 15–August 1, 2004).
This is the cul-de-sac that Ed Clark inhabits and it is important to pull him out of it. His contribution to both abstraction and black abstraction has yet to be recognized, partially because he belongs to the generation of abstract artists that was branded as “second generation abstract expressionists.” If painting died around 1960, as many have proposed, then what happened before is now a closed book — but, of course, it isn’t. His lack of recognition is also because, in attempting to fit Clark into art history, many of us fail to sufficiently address what distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries, such as Joan Mitchell and Al Held, to name just two.
I began thinking about some of these issues when I went to the exhibition, Ed Clark: A Survey at Mnuchin Gallery, which includes a number of paintings made with a broom. It has long been repeated that when Clark began using a broom and painting on the floor, he was restating Jackson Pollock. If the unstretched oval painting, “Intarsia” (1970), which is 10 feet wide and more than 18 feet high, is any indication, he has mastered laying down the acrylic paint in what appears to be single strokes of varying widths. These grooved, unbroken strokes can be layered, one color atop another. We are looking at paint as paint, as well as paint as color and light, earth and sky. The artist, who enlisted in the US Air Force in World War II, neither flew nor saw combat, but he wanted to be a pilot.
The story does not end there, however. In the summer of 1971, Clark flew to Crete to meet Jack Whitten, who had invited him to visit. It is likely they talked about painting and their own work. Whitten, who had had his first one-person show at Allan Stone in 1969, had first gone to Crete with his wife, Mary, in the summer of 1969. At the end of a journal entry dated October 1972 — in which he talks about using a saw blade and afro comb to manipulate the paint — Whitten writes in all caps and underlines the following sentence: “I JUST WANT A SLAB OF PAINT.” It is easy to imagine that Ed Clark’s broom paintings were one inspiration. The work of Clark and Whitten should also remind us of all the interesting things going on in painting in the 1970s, even if few people were looking.
One reason the meeting of Clark and Whitten is important is because at the beginning of the 1970s, a decade dominated by Conceptual Art and numerous pronouncements of the death of painting, two black artists were focused on ways to push painting forward. Both men dealt in their work with Pollock’s legacy of paint as paint, without reprising his technique of dripping or staining. They wanted to transform Pollock’s vision of materiality into their own — and, more importantly, they did so; they wanted to paint themselves into a history that had excluded them on every level, from segregation to aesthetic hierarchies. This is what the art world has yet to fully address: How do the institutional agendas and hierarchical thinking that form the canon become exclusionary?
By using a broom, Clark defined a layered, light-filled space that is all his own. One could say that he is an “American action painter,” whose softly undulant waves of creamy paint, traversing the canvas, share little with Joan Mitchell’s slashing strokes or Helen Frankenthaler pools of color. Isn’t that one of the goals of art — to acknowledge the work of your predecessors while making something that is unmistakably yours? Didn’t Clark achieve that very goal? By that measure, isn’t he at the same level as Mitchell and Frankenthaler?
In “Untitled” (1974-75), Clark defines an oval inside the painting’s rectangular format by laying down a thin strip of tape to outline the oval. He has also laid down rows of horizontal strips that run the length of the painting. Unless you are standing close to the painting’s surface when you photograph it, none of this is visible in a reproduction. After he has prepared the surface, he uses a broom to push the cream-like acrylic paint evenly across the surface, from one side to the other. The grooves made by broom and the colors inside the oval do not completely match up with the markings on the outside. There are also the lines made by the tape strips that have been painted over, and the grooves where he has peeled the tape off, which is especially noticeable as it coincides with the oval’s circumference.
The shape of the oval, in tandem with the many shifts that take place between the inside and outside, reminded me of “The False Mirror” (1929), René Magritte’s painting of an enormous eye that nearly fills the picture plane. Clark’s oval is an abstract eye or stand-in for a lens. It brings what it sees into a stronger focus. At the same time, the ridged surface imbues the painting with a structural physicality. The cluster of rows reminded me of musical scales.
Clark likes to use white or mix it into his colors. His pinks, which are sometimes near a blue, bring memories of the sky to mind. The layers of color extending beyond the edges of a grooved path of paint become a kind of physical light. Titles such as “Southern Light (Louisiana Series)” (1978), “Untitled (Egyptian Series),” and “Bahia Series” (1991) summon forth places and the particular light found there. This seems to be the artist’s recurring subject.
Will Clark receive the retrospective he has long deserved? Will there be a comprehensive publication accompanying it? This exhibition, which follows on the heels of solo exhibitions at Tilton Gallery in 2014 and 2016, along with his inclusion in historical surveys, are steps that I hope will culminate in a vast and necessary reappraisal of his work and place in art history. Clark had his first New York show at the downtown artist-run Brata Gallery — where Al Held also showed — in 1958. Sixty years have passed since then. How many more years will pass before we get this right?
Ed Clark: A Survey continues at Mnuchin Gallery (45 East 78th Street, Upper East Side) through October 20.