Art review by Franck Mercurio
Compared to other painters of the New York School, Ed Clark (born 1926) is not well known to American audiences. Some 60 years after the heyday of the Abstract Expressionists, the art of Pollack, de Kooning and Kline continues to be widely admired, yet Clark’s achievements remain fairly obscure.
Clark spent his formative years as an abstract painter in Paris in the early 1950s, and didn’t move to New York until 1956. Because of this, he is often grouped with the so-called “second generation” of Abstract Expressionists. These artists included Grace Haritgan, Joan Mitchell and others who practiced “action painting” in the late 1950s and expanded the genre beyond the work of earlier, more famous painters like Pollack.
But does this generational gap (or more precisely, half-generational gap) completely account for Clark’s absence from the conventional histories of the New York School? More likely, it’s because Clark is African American and was subject to the same discrimination as other people of color in the 1950s, even within supposedly liberal artistic and critical circles. As art historian Sharon F. Patton writes in African-American Art (1998), “Although they knew and were friends with white American artists who later became renowned, the African-American vanguard mostly lacked the extensive sustained exposure through exhibitions, patronage and critical reviews in the press.”
The Art Institute of Chicago has taken steps to correct this omission from the history books with the new exhibition, “Ed Clark.” Currently on view through March 9, this show of three works is small but revelatory. It opens with Untitled (1953), an abstract painting composed largely of blues and blacks with flashes of reds and whites, the latter rendered in a thick impasto. Clark’s energetic, wide brushstrokes seem constrained by the painting’s edges, ready to burst beyond the frame.
And that’s exactly what happens in Untitled (1957), a prime example of Clark’s “shaped” paintings. Here, Clark allows his brushstrokes to break free of the canvas. He does this by layering flat, angular shapes on top of the rectangular ground; the edges of these shapes fall outside the painting’s boundaries, expanding the composition. The overall effect is a kind of cubist take on Abstract Expressionism; Clark provides multiple perspectives of the same composition within one painting.
Silver Screen (1956) is the largest of the three works on display and injects some serious “action” into action painting. Here, Clark paints a swirling vortex of colors, representing nearly every hue in the spectrum. Lighter colors comprise the foundation layers of the canvas—perhaps representing the “silver screen”—with darker and more saturated colors painted on top. Clark’s movements, as captured by his gestural brushwork, seem to reflect the action of motion pictures, referenced in the painting’s title.
In the next gallery, adjacent to the Clark exhibition, are the works of Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923). There are some interesting parallels between the two artist’s lives. Both were born in the 1920s; both served in World War II and then studied in Paris on the GI Bill. And although both embraced abstraction, Kelly adopted minimalism and Color Field painting, a movement that became critically popular in the 1960s. Interestingly, his Red Yellow Blue White and Black (1953) is composed of the same base colors as Clark’s Untitled (1953). At this stage of their careers, both artists are clearly interested in a reductive color palette, yet Kelly expresses this in a highly restrained manner, while Clark is not afraid to tackle the complexities of gestural work.
As Kelly’s type of art became more accepted and seen as “the next big thing,” abstract expressionism became less popular. Clark, however, continued to work in this vein, splitting his time between New York and Paris. With the death of Grace Hartigan in 2008, Clark (now age 87) remains one of the last direct links to the New York School of the 1950s. In recognition of this—and of Clark’s creative achievements—the Art Institute presented Clark with a Legends and Legacy Award on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition. Perhaps this is a first step in revising the story of Abstract Expression to be more inclusive of all its contributors.
Have you knocked a full glass of milk off the counter, reached wildly and uncontrollably for it, and caught it? It makes the times when you don't, when you fail, so much more painful, and all I can think, instantly, when viewing Ed Clark's work, is oh no, I've dropped the glass. What is left is a beautiful messy, a gift of unexpected consequences. True beauty lies in the failing, in the moments between what should have been and what is. Visit - come lose your breath.