After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and L’Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, Clark continued to live and work in France, absorbing the influence of such European modernists as Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, and Jean-Paul Riopelle. He became a member of a social and intellectual circle of American expatriate artists and writers, including fellow African-American creative lights Beauford Delaney, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Clark settled in New York in 1957, where over the ensuing decade he became part of the city’s dynamic downtown scene and a co-founder of the Brata Gallery, an artist-run cooperative among the Tenth Street galleries of the East Village. From the late 1960s until very recently, Clark split his time between New York and Paris, traveling extensively to other locales from Mexico and Brazil to North Africa and Greece. The artist now lives in Detroit.
‘We are excited to further explore Clark’s place in the trajectory of expressive and inventive abstraction, a history that flows from such gallery artists as Arshile Gorky and Philip Guston, through Jack Whitten to Mark Bradford and other new-generation masters. ’
Clark’s work is currently on view at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in a critically admired installation of works from the permanent collection. He is also included in the traveling exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1983,’ now on view at The Broad Museum, Los Angeles (previously at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas; Brooklyn Museum, New York; and Tate, London).
Born in 1926 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Clark spent his formative years in Chicago. He enlisted in the United States Air Force and served in Guam during World War II. Under the GI Bill, Clark attended the Art Institute of Chicago (1947 – 1951) then L’Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris (1952), where he was taught by Louis Ritman and Edouard Goerg. At the encouragement of Goerg, Clark spent many hours at museums around Paris studying the works of modernists and Old Masters. Inspired by the work of Russian-born Paris-based artist Nicolas de Staël, Clark discovered the possibility of playing with hard-edge and gestural abstraction. Thus in his paintings of the 1950s, de Staël’s influence is clear: large, sensational strokes float through the canvases. During his years in Paris, Clark found himself engaging not only with fellow American expat painters Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, but also a generation of important African-American artists who had discovered freedom in Paris from racial discrimination at home.
In 1956, Clark began exploring new ways of painting and made his first breakthrough discovery—what he calls ‘the big sweep’—as he began using a push broom to achieve effects that neither a hand nor standard paintbrush could render. This change instigated a dramatic shift in Clark’s practice as he began experimenting with new processes. By using a standard workman’s broom to push paint around a canvas on the floor, Clark could create straight, long strokes, thus extending the momentum of his sweeping gesture across an entire surface. This newfound technique produced a sense of ‘drive’ within his paintings, as the slabs of thick paint brushed across the canvas appear to cut through something with a high velocity. Furthermore, by using an ordinary push broom, Clark elevates a humble process of labor into an instrument of high art.
At the advice of sculptor George Sugarman, Clark moved to New York in 1957. As his passion for exploring unknowns in painting continued to grow, Clark naturally moved outside the traditional rectangular canvas and began experimenting with different shapes, particularly the oval. His foray into oval-shaped canvases—he is credited with being the first American artist to show a shaped modern painting—and oval motifs on rectangular canvas ground, create illusions via strips of color that never end within the form.
Clark also charted an important course through the 1950s and 1960s as a co-founder of the Brata Gallery. Along with his compatriots Al Held, Yayoi Kusama, and Ron Bladen, Clark founded the gallery in an attempt to change the way contemporary art was made and exhibited. Following nine years in New York City, Clark traveled extensively around the world. Aware of the difference that colors can take on in varying locations and circumstances of light and landscape, he journeyed in the hopes of expanding his palette and finding new shades and effects to capture in paint. The discovery of unfamiliar hues expanded Clark’s artistic vocabulary immensely, with results becoming clear in the mood, energy, and volumes of his work over time.
While Clark continued to pursue abstraction with the aid of the push broom technique, his work has evolved to include a multiplicity of styles. Whereas his paintings of the 1960s and 1970s seem to largely assert the power of straight strokes, his works of the 1980s focused on tubular shapes. In the 2000s, his paintings have shifted again as Clark has sought fresh means of laying, splashing and pushing paint across canvas and exploring its expressive potentials.
‘Ed Clark’ will be on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street from 10 September – 26 October 2019.