Ed Clark (1926–2019)

Ed Clark.

HISTORICAL AMNESIA will have us forget that, as a painter, Ed Clark was always on the inside. Touted as one of the few black painters known to be adjacent to the Abstract Expressionist movement, Clark advanced gestural painting into the arena of the sublime.

After pocketing the GI Bill money from his World War II service in Guam, the artist sailed across the Atlantic in 1952, making his entrée as a painter in Paris at a moment when New York had deposed his new city as the epicenter of the global art world. He experienced James Baldwin’s Paris with Beauford Delaney and returned to paint in New York in 1957. That year marked the debut of his famous shaped, collaged canvas Untitled, which extended the possibilities of painterly gesture beyond the frame. (David Hammons, a longtime supporter of Clark, made an undeniable rejoinder to the elder artist in his tarp paintings.) When not in the studio, he worked as an assistant at Sidney Janis Gallery, whose stable included Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and other AbEx giants Clark came to know. The same year, he cofounded Brata Gallery, a groundbreaking cooperative in the East Village, with heralded artists like George Sugarman and Al Held. But focusing our memory of Clark to this New York moment keeps him tethered to the ball and chain of AbEx, letting decades of curatorial and critical inattention to his paintings go unreckoned. 

Clark’s work in the decades after the fading hum of the postwar period thrived with the artist’s peregrinations. His life was like the traces of paint on his canvases; its achievement lay in the spread of its errantry. He meditated on Monet’s water lilies at Giverny while finding creative refuge at Joan Mitchell’s château off the Seine in Vétheuil. He traveled to Fidel’s Cuba with Amiri Baraka in the summer of 1960. He regularly vacationed with his comrade Jack Whitten in Crete, and sojourned across the rhizomatic nodes of the black diaspora, from Brazil and Martinique, to Nigeria, to Jelly Roll Morton’s Storyville in New Orleans. (It was there that Clark was born—amid the looming encroachment of the Great Depression, and in the crucible of jazz.) But he created his most ambitious and accomplished work on the floor of his Chelsea studio, where he poured and pooled paint, sweeping it across the surface of his large-scale canvases with a push broom.

In one of the last in-depth interviews he had with Whitten, the artist darted attempts to pinion his paintings to historical or biographical interpretation, and met with refusal any efforts to define his worldview. “I’m a painter and nothing else,” he avowed. Indeed, abstraction for many African American artists was a critical strategy to engage in aesthetic experimentation that allowed them, if necessary or if desired, to unhinge their work from narrowing discourses of race and representation. Clark left art historians few words about his work, but he left his viewers riveting traces of liveness; we experience the rush of color on his surfaces as an index of the artist’s presence and undeniable life force. He perfected the union of shape and space with his brushstrokes, the broad sweeps of paint taking on playful, anthropomorphic dimensions that creep into hiding and reappear. Clark’s gravitation toward the form of the ellipse in his etchings, tondos, and canvases was a gesture that dared to turn inward to the life of the mind while extending an invitation to perceive, imagine, and feel. He was waiting all the while for us to catch up.

Jessica Bell Brown is the associate curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art.