GalleriesWeekend

A History Waiting To Be Written: Ed Clark’s High-Spirited, Abstract Paintings

by John Yau on January 26, 2014

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005) - lava

Ed Clark, “Untitled” (2005) (all images courtesy of Tilton Gallery)

David Hammons’ thoughtful curation of the exhibition, Ed Clark: Big Bang, currently at the Tilton Gallery (January 14–February 22, 2014) helps establish a much needed context for an important artist of the New York School, who, now in his late 80s, continues to make boldly exuberant paintings. By including single works by Clark’s friends and supporters — Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, and Donald Judd — Hammons reminds us that he had the respect of astute, tough-minded contemporaries, even as curators and critics have repeatedly neglected to acknowledge his contribution over the years.

Clark’s inclusion in the traveling exhibition, Blues for Smoke, curated by Bennet Simpson, which was at the Whitney Museum of American Art (February 7–April 28, 203), was certainly a step in the right direction. For, as Corinne Robins pointed out in a review from 1997, even the seemingly inclusive chronicler and art historian, Irving Sandler failed to mention “Ed Clark or any other artist of color” in his book, The New York School (1978). The history that Robins alludes to — which is occult and largely kept alive by artists and poets — needs to be brought further into the light, particularly in New York. I say this because when I first saw work by Clark at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and, after that, a particularly memorable, shaped painting from 1957 at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wondered why I had never heard of him before, and what had happened to him. It was as if Clark had been present and active in the late ’50s and then mysteriously, he was gone. This, of course, wasn’t the case.

Clark, _New Orleans Series #5_ (2012)

Ed Clark, “New Orleans Series #5″ (2012)

Later, I learned that Nicholas Krushenick included Clark, along with Al Held, George Sugarman, Yayoi Kusama, Ronald Bladen, and himself, in the first 1957 Christmas show at the Brata Gallery. A few small pockets of the art world, it seems, were multicultural long before that word entered the discourse. In a 1972 Art News article, Lawrence Campbell described Clark’s shaped painting in the Brata exhibition as the first of its kind. In retrospect, it seems that with the rise of Minimalism, Pop Art, Painterly Realism and Color Field painting, and the far reaching influence of formalist criticism, Clark, whose roots are in Abstract Expressionism, got left out, both at the time and in every retelling of what has come to be known as the “Second Generation.” Here, it’s worth remembering that Donald Judd gave Clark a show in his loft in 1971.

The larger problem is that decades have gone by with few calling attention to Clark’s absence, as if everyone — including dealers, curators, collectors and critics — had gotten the history right the first time. Self-satisfaction is only one of the art world’s Achilles heels. While very few people in New York from the early 1960s on seemed to be paying much attention, particularly to painting that owes something to Abstract Expressionism, Clark continued making bold, innovative work.  More importantly — as I hope to make clear — his work subverts a number of commonplace assumptions about Abstract Expressionism, beginning with the long held charge that it is elitist. It also enlarges our understanding of what various artists did with this loosely defined approach to painting. Like his friend, Joan Mitchell, Clark never succumbed to the pressures of Minimalism and Pop Art to reject the materiality of paint and a human touch, as did another contemporary, Al Held.

Moreover, contrary to those who claimed Abstract Expressionism was a purely American development, Clark has openly acknowledged being influenced by Nicolas de Stael’s interlocking slabs of impasto paint, which he applied with a palette knife. However, instead of troweling cement-like, slow-drying oil paint, Clark paints on the floor, using a broom to push acrylic paint whose consistency ranges from a watery medium to a creamy paste, in colors that go from white to primaries and secondaries, often mixed with white. Against the unprimed, often slightly dirty canvas, Clark’s thick swaths of white paint evoke crème fraiche floating on vichyssoise. There is something innocent and indecent about their pillowy surfaces.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2009)

Ed Clark, “Untitled” (2009)

Utilizing an impure approach, which distinguishes him from his more stylistically narrow peers, Clark is likely to combine staining, splattering and drawing with a broom in a single work. In “Untitled” (2001) and “Untitled” (2005), he stacked wide swaths of thick, velvety paint that horizontally span the surface. Some of the swaths are made of two colors that have been poured together, with the broom mixing them further, while others are layered, one color on top of another. Although they evoke brushstrokes, we instinctively know that the swaths are too wide to have been made by a brush. By pushing them with a broom, Clark connects the history of menial labor and janitorial services with high art and abstract painting.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005)

Ed Clark, “Untitled” (2005)

It is one thing to paint like a bricklayer, as an artist I know once said disparagingly of Milton Resnick, but it is quite another to transform a janitorial activity into a high-minded lyricism, which is exactly what Clark has done and more. Clark’s bonding of janitorial services and Abstract Expressionist painting challenges the widely received art historical view that it wasn’t until Minimalism (Frank Stella’s use of a house painter’s brushes) and Pop Art (Andy Warhol’s silk screens of movie stars and disasters) that artists mixed labor, commercial tools, the everyday and art. Clark’s paintings are performative, while his lush, hybrid forms are simultaneously sculptural and painterly, buoyant and even witty.

By drawing in paint with a broom — and really this should be considered an innovation — it is clear that Clark possesses a remarkable amount of control and possibility with an ungainly instrument. This is most apparent in “Paris” (2009), in which he stacked a series of distinct gestural forms on an unprimed canvas. The variously colored forms, which seem simultaneously solid and liquid, frozen and moving, manmade and lava-like, evoke an adagio act, stones precariously balanced on each other, an abstract totem and a veiled dancer in constant movement. In “Paris,” it is clear that Clark has absorbed as well as transformed the Surrealism of Max Ernst and Joan Miro into something all his own.

Clark, _Paris_ (2009)

Ed Clark, “Paris” (2009)

Clark’s oeuvre is as distinctive and particular, and, in that regard, comparable to the work of other artists who belong to the so-called “Second Generation” — Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and Norman Bluhm, for example. He is certainly due the close attention that Mitchell and Francis have received. Clark is an important figure in the history of postwar abstract art, a history that includes African American practitioners, whose work ranges across time and style — from Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas to Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten. It is a rich, complex and little-known history that requires further research and scholarship, not to mention exhibitions and monographs.

Hammons selected eight large paintings that Clark did between 2001 and 2012. They were all done after the artist turned seventy-five. What an eye-popping revelation and joy to see them hung in three spacious rooms of an Upper East Side townhouse. Their enthusiasm is unrivaled and catching.

Ed Clark: Big Bang continues at Tilton Gallery (8 East 76 Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 22.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Max Koss

    The Art Institute has a room up with is paintings at the moment, and will give him some sort of achievement award. http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/ed-clark

    • Dawoud Bey

      Clark received the Legends and Legacy Award from the African American support group at the AIC in a program on October 25, 2013:

      “The Leadership Advisory Committee of the Art Institute of Chicago is bestowing its Legends and Legacy Award upon internationally renowned abstract artist Ed Clark. This award is conferred upon living African American artists who, through their lifelong accomplishments, have achieved national acclaim with careers spanning over 50 years. Clark is the third recipient of this distinguished honor. Previous award winners include Elizabeth Catlett (2005) and Margaret Burroughs (2010).”

      • Max Koss

        Thanks for clarifying, Dawoud!

  • Dawoud Bey

    Irving Sandler’s exclusion of Ed Clark’s work and name in his “seminal” book The New York School borders on the criminally irresponsible or outrightly racist. How else to explain his exclusion when Clark was not merely “…included in the first 1957 Christmas show at the Brata Gallery,” but was indeed a founding member of that gallery! Sandler devotes a section of his book to Brata Gallery, and it would have been difficult to do the exhaustive research that he presumably did without encountering Ed Clark’s presence. So why they omission? Clark’s exclusion from this text is part of the foundation of his decades long exclusion from art history and the contemporary conversation since the book’s appearance in the mid-1970s. If you want to know why Clark is not as well known as his work, history, and various associations would seem to justify, you need look no further than Irving Sandler, one of history’s quiet henchmen.

  • Franklin Einspruch

    Since you don’t say who are these “more stylistically narrow peers” from which Clark distinguishes himself by his “impure approach,” or who amenably receives the “widely received art historical view that it wasn’t until Minimalism … and Pop Art … that artists mixed
    labor, commercial tools, the everyday and art,” some of your points here sound a bit off. Noland gets most of the credit for working out how to use house painting brushes, rollers, and sponges. In fact, acrylics at that time were house paints and Noland figured out how to get the effects he wanted by adding detergents. I thought that was pretty well established as art history but perhaps I’m mistaken.

    Commercial, “non-art” tools became commonplace in abstraction from the beginning and exploded after the Post-Painterly work of the ’70s had its run, even among adherents of Greenbergian modernism. (Greenberg is usually the object of criticism when “purity” in abstract painting is being denigrated, though Greenberg himself never believed in it.) I assume you don’t mean this, but to say that “Clark connects the history of menial labor
    and janitorial services with high art and abstract painting” by pushing paint with a broom implies, unfortunately, that the connection occurs when a black man is doing said pushing. Does this ever come up when Richter uses a squeegee or Olitski a leaf blower? Somehow, no. From what I know about Clark even he would reject that connection. He is very much a Tenth Street kind of guy in his desire to make pictures and avoid considerations of meaning.

    • hhancock

      Sorry for my ignorance, but could you explain the phrase “Tenth Street kind of guy”?

      • Franklin Einspruch

        Yeah, sure thing. There was a crowd of abstractionists working on and around Tenth Street in the ’40s and ’50s who were concerned primarily if not downright exclusively with the problem of making pictures without recognizable content, with an emphasis on the material possibilities of paint. Finally there was a “Tenth Street Touch” that became sufficiently commonplace to drive a group of younger painters off into what Greenberg ended up calling Post-Painterly Abstraction. This is all a bit of a shorthand but there’s the outline for you.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Response from John Yau and posted on his behalf:

      Ed Clark was born in Storyville, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1926. He grew up when segregation was the binding law of many states. While it is possible to argue that there is no cultural element in Clark’s paintings – that there is no reference to the fact that he was black and grew up in a segregated society, that the broom was purely a formal choice, I don’t see it that way – just as I don’t see Jack Whitten’s use of an Afro-comb as a purely formal device. By the way, Whitten used squeegees at least a decade before Richter did and, until recently, never got credit for it – another instance of where the art world got it wrong.

      In saying, Ed Clark “is very much a Tenth Street kind of guy,” you seem to be agreeing with Clement Greenberg, who coined the phrase “Tenth street touch” to characterize painters who he felt were followers of Willem de Kooning. Formally speaking, Clark used a broom as a way to take his hand out of painting, to distance himself from the “tenth street touch.” At the same time, I don’t think he picked up the broom without thinking of it in a cultural context. The fact that he didn’t emphasize it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

      The deeper issue is whose history gets written and who gets to write it. I agree with Dawoud Bey, who wrote: “Irving Sandler’s exclusion of Ed Clark’s work and name in his “seminal” book The New York School borders on the criminally irresponsible or outrightly racist.” And while Sandler is “one of art history’s quiet henchmen,” Greenberg is one of its biggest and loudest. I don’t accept either version.

      • Franklin Einspruch

        Well then, responding to John:

        Formally speaking, Clark used a broom as a way to take his hand out of painting, to distance himself from the “tenth street touch.”

        You can’t have it both ways: either the pushed swaths of paint “evoke brushstrokes” and are “performative” and “painterly” and “gestural” as you say above, or he was trying to take his hand out of them to distance himself from the Tenth Street Touch. At any rate, I was referring to the milieu around Tenth Street at the time, not the Touch. I found an interview with Ed Clark in which he says, “as far as the push broom was concerned, I was getting into the stroke as the subject.” See 8:50 here. What he has to say about meaning around 10:00 could have come out of the mouth of Larry Poons – in fact the same thing in essence recently did. I infer by context that you’re unaware that Greenberg coined the Touch as a pejorative – he said that it had “spread through abstract painting like a blight during the 1950s.”

        I guess it’s fair that you don’t accept Sandler’s or Greenberg’s version of the history of abstraction, because I reject your version of Greenberg. We’ve been through this already, of course, but I mention it again because if we’re in the business of filling out the historical record with neglected details, we have to let those details come forward, not slap whatever interpretive gloss we feel like on the facts at hand. You “don’t think [Clark] picked up the broom without thinking of it in a cultural context”? Why, did you talk with him about it? Which brings me to this:

        The fact that he didn’t emphasize it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

        Really, it’s not there. He got the idea from Soulages, apparently. What I said about interpretive gloss goes double for Sandler. If you’d like to accuse him of criminal irresponsiblity or outright racism for not including Ed Clark in The New York School, I can put you in touch with him and you may do so directly. (I’m sure you don’t need my help with that.) It’s possible that Clark spent enough of the ’50s in Paris that he didn’t have the same kind of connection to New York that the other artists had. I realize that in these days of “microaggressions” you can hurl a charge of racism at anything, but with equal foundation I could say that your rejection of Sandler’s and Greenberg’s historical accounts stem from antisemetism. Which out of professional courtesy and simple decency, I wouldn’t do.

        Since you bring it up, here’s Sebastian Smee from four months ago:

        Without these [squeegee] paintings, which date from around 1980, Richter would not have become what he indubitably is: the most influential painter of the past quarter century.

        So it can’t help but be fascinating to note that, more than 10 years previously, Jack Whitten, an African-American artist then in his early 30s, devised a similar method for applying paint to canvas, and produced comparable results.

        This art world you speak of with its instances of getting things wrong – are you sure you’re not in it?

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Again, responding on behalf of John Yau:

          You “infer by context that [I’m] unaware that Greenberg coined the Touch as a pejorative.” You inference is wrong, but perhaps you needed to be smug. And your remark on Twitter to Abstract Critical – “Too bad said comments were followed by the sound of crickets” – is also smug. So this is the last thing I will respond to you because I don’t make it a practice to deal with people who feel they are superior.

          This is what you wrote: “You can’t have it both ways: either the pushed swaths of paint “evoke brushstrokes” and are “performative” and “painterly” and “gestural” as you say above, or he was trying to take his hand out of them to distance himself from the Tenth Street Touch.”

          This is what I wrote in my original piece: “Although they evoke brushstrokes, we instinctively know that the swaths are too wide to have been made by a brush.” (italics mine) And then in my response to your first commentary, I wrote: “Formally speaking, Clark used a broom as a way to take his hand out of painting, to distance himself from the “tenth street touch.” In his hands, the broom is “performative, painterly and gestural.” Pushing a broom is not the same as using a paintbrush, even a house painter’s brush. Ed Clark can have it both ways, which is something you cannot accept.

          As I said at the end of my first response: The deeper issue is whose history gets written and who gets to write it. I agree with Dawoud Bey, who wrote: “Irving Sandler’s exclusion of Ed Clark’s work and name in his “seminal” book The New York School borders on the criminally irresponsible or outrightly racist.” And while Sandler is “one of art history’s quiet henchmen,” Greenberg is one of its biggest and loudest. I don’t accept either version.

          I have a different view of history than you do. You believe in the exclusions and the suppressions. You think Greenberg got it right and are all too happy to be one of his henchmen. Only a henchman would have posted what you did on Twitter.

          • Franklin Einspruch

            You inference is wrong, but perhaps you needed to be smug.

            The inference came from this: “In saying, Ed Clark ‘is very much a Tenth Street kind of guy,’ you seem to be agreeing with Clement Greenberg, who coined the phrase “Tenth street touch” to characterize painters who he felt were followers of Willem de Kooning.” You claim that Clark was moving away from said Touch. Since I don’t know what I seemed to be agreeing with Greenberg about, it sounded like Clark was moving away from something that Greenberg was praising, which he wasn’t. If that wasn’t what you meant, then I regret the misunderstanding but you didn’t make understanding particularly easy there.

            And your remark on Twitter to Abstract Critical – “Too bad said comments were followed by the sound of crickets” – is also smug.

            Four days went by before you addressed my points. Crickets is the word. If you’re reading Twitter then you also saw my tweet that I like your writing and much of what goes on at Hyperallergic, though on certain topics, yeesh. I stand by that.

            So this is the last thing I will respond to you because I don’t make it a practice to deal with people who feel they are superior.

            When it comes to matters of culture, nothing is worse than a thin-skinned critic.

            Ed Clark can have it both ways, which is something you cannot accept.

            Clark can have it any way he likes. What you can’t have are both of the claims that he is putting his hand into the paint application, making it performative, painterly, and gestural, and evocative of the brushstroke, and taking his hand out of the paint application. They mean opposite things.

            …criminally irresponsible or outrightly racist.

            I’ll let Mr. Sandler know that you said so.

            You believe in the exclusions and the suppressions. You think Greenberg got it right…

            Greenberg’s choices of what to write about at the height of his career were overly New-York-centric, for one. The whole scene at the time was anti-Paris, which is understandable on some level but not wholly warranted (and may have worked unfairly against Clark). Guys they were down on at the time look like geniuses in retrospect compared to what’s going on now, by admission of some of them who were around Greenberg back then. When Greenberg did branch out away from New York he became interested in Western Canada for idiosyncratic reasons and thus missed, among other things, what was going on in the Bay Area in the ’50s. No one critic can be expected to do justice to everything. Considered as one version of what happened, his account his fine, and as far as I know he never claimed that his take on things was anything more than that.

            …and are all too happy to be one of his henchmen. Only a henchman would have posted what you did on Twitter.

            What I object to is the unwillingness even to take that account as such at face value, because of this persistent but nutty idea floating around out there of Greenberg as the embodiment of wrongdoing. There is not a certain kind of person who finds his ideas of interest, and to think there’s a group of henchmen going around saying things you don’t like on Twitter because of them is profoundly odd.

Previous post:

Next post: