Silver Screen, 1956
Ed Clark at the Art Institute, through March 9
Ed Clark is an African American artist, but he’s not primarily about African American identity. He’s an Abstract-Expressionist, but he’s not primarily about angst, creativity, mental processing, or other kinds of self exploration. So he doesn’t really fit into the world of contemporary art. He’s more of an early Modernist like Kandinsky – or even earlier – like JMW Turner, in connecting himself to the powerful forces of nature. But unlike Turner, Clark’s forces are more tectonic than atmospheric.
This current show only consists of three paintings, all done in the 1950’s. But it’s enough to demonstrate the artist’s willingness to go wherever the forces take him – in one case erupting beyond the rectangular edges of the panel, establishing him as one of the pioneers of shaped-canvas painting. But in that piece, as in the other two, he seemed far more interested in the forces from within than in the shape from without. In all three, he seems to have consistently asked himself “how can I crank up this energy just a little bit more”
These are paintings that could be altarpieces in some kind of post-religious church that celebrates big-bangs or the other cosmic events that left our universe in its wake. Because not only are Clark’s forces powerful, but strong and clear colors emerge from their dark and violent interaction. The results are beautiful, full of hope and promise.
The current show coincides with his receipt of the Art Institute’s “Legends and Legacy Award” an honor recognizing living African American artists.. Some day, hopefully, a full retrospective of Clark’s 60 year career will acknowledge that his achievements have a much broader scope.
Silver Screen, detail
postscript: I wasn't the only one to love this show!
Here's what Barry Schwabsky had to say in the Nation:
"For me, though, the great revelation was at the Tilton Gallery, where the artist David Hammons curated “Ed Clark: Big Bang,” an aptly titled dose of explosive energy from a remarkable second-generation Abstract Expressionist born in 1926. Until recently, Clark has been almost criminally overlooked— including by me, I must admit. When I was first gobsmacked by one of his paintings, at the uneven “Blues for Smoke” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year, this African-American artist was just a vague name to me. Now, suddenly, with the Art Institute of Chicago having recently devoted a little room to three of his works from the 1950s, and the Tilton exhibition of eight of his paintings from 2001 through 2012 alongside one from 1959, Clark can no longer be sidelined. He is, simply, one of the best living painters.
Like his contemporaries Norman Bluhm, Al Held and Alfred Leslie, Clark developed his painterly gesture on a grand scale. No mere brush seems big enough for him— photographs show him pushing paint around with a broom—but the results are not empty bluster. Clark revels in the subtlest interplay of will and accident, painting wet-into-wet to coax suave modulations of color out of the bluntest, even seemingly most slapdash concatenations of matter. (He appears to take particular pleasure in transforming blue into brown.) It’s almost indecently voluptuous, and yet rigorously structured. Paint as a literal, physical presence and as a trace of the artist’s mental and physical activity becomes inseparable from the evocation of the glory of light."