Painter of the World

A conversation about Ed Clark: tireless traveler, restless innovator and father

Ed Clark in his New York studio, 1975 © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo: Dwight Carter

  • 26 February 2022

On the occasion of ‘Without a Doubt,’ an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth London spanning three decades of the work of Ed Clark, Clark’s daughter, Melanca Clark, recently sat down via Zoom with the curator Allie Biswas to talk about Clark’s perseverance and experimentation, his deep curiosity about the world and his long-delayed embrace by the institutional art world.

Allie Biswas: I'm really thrilled to be speaking with you. 

Melanca Clark: Likewise.

AB: I was thinking all of today about how we could start our conversation. I kept on coming back to Paris—a city that was critical to your father, throughout his life, for his art. And of course, in the current show in London, there are a selection of the ‘Broken Rainbow’ works, which Ed also referred to as the Paris Series. So I thought we could start there, thinking about his time in Europe.

MC: Absolutely.

AB: When Ed Clark arrives in Paris for the first time in 1952, he enrolls at L’Academie de la Grande Chaumière, having already studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for four years. What do you think he wanted to achieve by moving to Europe?

MC: I think it's hard to understate how catalytic it was for him, first to go to the Art Institute on the G.I. Bill [the benefits program for American soldiers returning from World War II]. The G.I. Bill also allowed him to get to France. And the opportunity to travel abroad is something he would absolutely not have been able to do otherwise. There were actually a number of Americans on the G.I. Bill in Europe in art school who had no art interest; it was just the easiest way for them to get to Paris. But for dad, he was there every day for art. I'm not sure if he fully understood, before going, how liberating it would be as a Black person in the '50s to be in Paris and how different it would feel—that social aspect, the camaraderie of the artists that he found there. He talks often, too, about how liberating, in a weird sense, it was that American artists were looked down upon in Paris. This was before the center of gravity fully moved to the states and France still looked down its nose at American art. But it wasn’t a race thing and it was revelatory, ironically, for him to feel looked down upon for something other than race! Dad always, in my experience, always had multiracial friendships and I think Paris was where that began, where it was possible for it to begin. It wouldn’t have happened in segregated Chicago.

Paris studio, 1991 © The Estate of Ed Clark

AB: How influenced do you think he was by European painting? There's one artist that he frequently cites—Nicolas de Staël—who I think is arguably his greatest influence in terms of what he was looking at then. Would you agree with that?

MC: I would. He's talked a lot about that. What was so interesting is that when he saw the painting [Les Footballeurs, 1952] for the first time, in 1952, he didn’t realize it was figurative—it was a depiction of a football game. The interest for dad was in the paint itself, the surface and the broad strokes, and it wasn't until he read an article about the exhibition the next day that he realized that this painting that was so meaningful to him was actually a representation of football players. He didn’t know de Staël. But de Staël’s work was a big deal for him. And then of course Cézanne, especially, was an inspiration to him. He talks about one of his art instructors saying to him to go to the museums and ‘talk’ to the different artists, of course, long dead. And he did! But of course he was also surrounded by a whole cultural scene of people—artists and writers—influencing each other.

AB: From what I’ve read, I get the impression that he was self-educated to a large extent in the sense that he was extremely committed to looking at art in museums. 

MC: I wouldn't discount his formal education but I think he certainly spent time outside of the academy learning as much as he could about art and artists. I say this having gone with him to many museums and knowing we’d need to put aside five hours, at least to walk through. He’d have hours of things to say about just one artist, detailed information about their life and how they fit into the historical context. When I was in high school, actually, a friend who was with me on a museum visit to the Louvre with my dad literally passed out  while we were in the museum! She was dehydrated, also, but the endurance march and the intensity was too much. The passion he had for art was fierce; he was just so obsessed. He didn’t think of himself as an academic, but I would say certainly in those moments in museums, it was like, ‘My gosh. We’re going to the museum with a professor. We cannot race by anything.’

Ed Clark, Self Portrait, 1947-49 © The Estate of Ed Clark

Clark in his Paris studio © The Estate of Ed Clark

AB: In Paris, he becomes successful pretty quickly. By 1955, he’s showing with Galerie Raymond Creuze and then he has an another set of exhibitions within the next year. The following period is also critical because he starts painting with a broom—a tool that goes on to become integral to his practice over the next seven decades. Do you think he understood the significance of what was happening in those years?

MC: He would talk about that time in Paris as really the beginning of something. And he did get big early attention, but at the same time, later in life, he felt ignored by the critics, and perhaps that was harder because of the attention he had early on. The oth er thing to say about that was that even with the early critical and gallery success in Paris, it didn’t necessarily translate into monetary success. As soon as the G.I. Bill money ran out, he was literally starving. He talked about it in romantic ways, but it was hard going. And then at some point along the way, my great-grandmother died and left my grandfather money. And that’s how dad got back to Paris after that first five-year stint, with some of that money. Over the years his critical and his commercial success kind of worked on separate tracks sometimes. By the 1980s and 1990s, even as he felt that critical notice was lacking, he did reach a place of being more financially comfortable, which went with the rise in collecting by the Black middle class, a circumstance that certainly made a difference in my life.

AB: It’s interesting to hear about what was happening behind-the-scenes—the actual reality of trying to build a career as an artist And it sounds as though it was quite an uneven trajectory, which is arguably the norm for the majority of artists

MC: One thing I would say is how truly grateful he was that for most of his life he was able to paint and support himself and his family through his work, something that’s extraordinarily hard to do for most artists. He was forever saying how glad he was that, ‘I don’t have to teach!’ He never really enjoyed teaching, even though he did teach at a certain point in his life. He just had such confidence in his work and he was very aware of the disconnect that sometimes happened between critical and financial success, even when there was steadily more stability for him from a financial perspective as he grew older.

Ed Clark, Untitled, 1970 © The Estate of Ed Clark

‘Ed is acknowledged as one of the first post-war American artists to alter the shape of the canvas, which marks a transitional moment in the history of 20th century painting. For me, it's a moment that underlines how focused Ed was on creating and developing abstract painting... expanding the idea of painting beyond the picture plane.’—Allie Biswas

AB: The '50s were an important decade for him. Shortly after incorporating the broom as his primary painting tool, he goes back to New York in 1956 and makes his first work using a shaped canvas—a canvas that departs from the traditional rectangular or squared format. Ed is acknowledged as one of the first post-war American artists to alter the shape of the canvas, which marks a transitional moment in the history of 20th century painting. For me, it's a moment that underlines how focused Ed was on creating and developing abstract painting and how preoccupied he was with expanding the idea of painting beyond the picture plane, which was arguably his primary motivation throughout his life and his career.

MC: That strand of pushing and not being satisfied and innovating was true in that moment, when he did that first shaped piece, and continued literally to the end. The common thread is innovation. I mean, there was consistence—the colorism and the use of the brush. You can recognize his work, if you know it, anywhere, but it did continue to change. Even into his 80s he continued to change the way he approached the canvas. He talked about wanting to make that perfect picture and never being satisfied that he’d gotten it.

AB: The shaped canvas that he showed in 1957 at the Brata Gallery, the artists’ cooperative on East 10th Street, which he helped to establish, was a collage-type of painting, with the material coming off the frame. But then he takes the idea further with the elliptical paintings, which mimic the shape of the eye. He felt that an oval-shaped canvas was truer to the human field of vision. It takes him a decade to get to that point, and it seems to me that this development was dependent on him moving back to France. He specifically starts to explore the elliptical in 1968 when he's staying at Joan Mitchell’s house. So I'm interested in the role that context played for Ed's work—how the networks that he was part of in New York and in Paris perhaps informed his painting. Throughout his life it was Paris and New York, New York and Paris. And he had friendships with artists in both places, who he felt understood him.

Ed Clark with works on paper, 1971 © The Estate of Ed Clark

MC: In France, certainly, so much of that network was fellow American ex-pats, like Sal Romano, George Sugarman, Al Held, Earl Kerkam, Herb Gentry, and others. And then at that moment when the center of the earth in the art world really moved to the States with Abstract Expressionism, he felt he had to be there, and so he went, to be in the thick of it. And then after a few years he has the moment of coming back to Paris. I remember reading an interview where he said something like, if your work wasn’t literally propelling off the wall, it felt like it wasn’t getting any attention. And I don’t know if it was that specifically , but he ended up being pulled back to France and would continue to go back and forth over the course of his lifetime.  When he was living in France in the late 60s, the friendship with Joan Mitchell was a godsend, not only because of the relationship with her. At that point, my mom was with him, dad’s third wife (Hedy), and Joan invited them to stay at her country house in Vetheuil while she was in Paris during the week and when she would travel, and the house was all theirs and it came with a staff and every meal prepared. So it was like Joan was solving all types of problems because dad was still doing side hustles to make ends meet and allow him to execute the art. And here was a house and a painting studio and someone literally cooking your meals. It was such a good respite and it came right at the right moment. Dad was back and forth to see friends in Paris, as well, and I think that second trip back to France also is when he made his first trip to Crete at the invitation of Jack Whitten.

AB: As I understand, Ed goes to Crete in 1971 to see Jack and that sparks a long period of very active international travel. It’s noticeable how much the environment impacted the painting.

MC: He would talk about that all the time, how place shaped what he was doing. In Chicago, at the Art Institute, he worked on a self-portrait, which was really the painting that gave him the confidence—even as he  eventually left figurative work behind—that he was an extraordinary artist. He did that painting in his bathroom at night in his parents' home in Chicago, and it's extraordinary. But then he goes to France and he talks about the recognition of the way in which the light is different than it is back home and how painting during the day as opposed to night changed his thinking. And then Crete really underscored that feeling about light. I would say the travel was more than just chasing the light—it was about all the other contextual and physical things that you see, the experiences that you have—but it felt to me that the travel started with a recognition about light. And Crete was just an amazing place. I got to visit Jack Whitten there in my early adult years and it’s just fantastic.

AB: All of this points to an artist who is always looking outside of himself. Ed followed his desire to be elsewhere, keen to set up temporary studios wherever he found himself.

MC: I grew up experiencing the art but also experiencing a parent who loved travel, who privileged it over everything. And he took me along on so many different trips. He was so curious, curious about the world, curious about people. He wasn't an insular artist. And getting to travel wasn’t always easy. Even in Paris, when he got there on the G.I. Bill, it was cold and he was in a boarding house and he had very little money, but he always figured out how to make things like that happen. 

AB: I’m aware that I’m speaking to the artist’s daughter. When you were growing up, was there a point when you became alert to the fact that your father was an artist?

MC: The privilege of having a dad who’s an artist and having my dad in particular is that it just felt normal to me to live in the middle of art and the making of art. I said something at his memorial that I think is worth repeating, which is that while dad had a huge rainbow of friends, I grew up in the main thinking basically that most Black people were artists of some type or another and that most artists were Black. That was just my experience of the world. And not until I got older did I realize that there was this entire other art world that my dad and his friends weren't necessarily at the center of. There were so many things we could have put on his tombstone and we just put ‘artist,’ because that's who he was, but he was also an amazing father. Despite his commitment to his work, he still made me feel at the center of things, and I have no idea how that was possible. A lot of times with creative people the passion for the work gets in the way, I think, of being able to be that type of parent. But he just made the space for me, and I took it for granted until I was older, and, as an adult, came to realize how special it was.

Ed Clark with daughter Melanca Clark, Bill Hutson and Adger Cowans © The Estate of Ed Clark

‘There were so many things we could have put on his tombstone and we just put ‘artist,’ because that's who he was, but he was also an amazing father.’—Melanca Clark

AB: All of this makes me think of the wonderful conversation that Ed had with Jack Whitten for Bomb magazine in 2014, now published online. I love that conversation. It really gives a sense of how charismatic Ed was. And in that conversation he talks very explicitly about how no white dealers wanted to work with him. In the book that I co-edited with Mark Godfrey, ‘The Soul of a Nation Reader,’ we included an article written by Ed in 1968 about The Studio Museum in Harlem, which shows how alert he was to the fact that race was playing a massive part in holding back Black artists in America. But what he was also saying in the article was that race was not something that should dictate how Black artists operate, and that it shouldn't have to be the subject of the work. Also, at the same time that white-owned galleries in New York are excluding him, there’s the invitation from Donald Judd [in 1971] to exhibit his work at Judd’s loft building on Spring Street. 

MC: I would say two things about that. First, it’s important to state again that not that all of dad's artists friends were Black. It was a very diverse group around him. And I would say in general that it was the artists who got it, who understood his work, artists like Judd and the circle of other artists of the time that he was close with, who recognized the importance of the work and respected each other. The commercial part of the art world, the galleries, the dealers, the museums, that whole part, was different. And frankly, if you think about who was primarily collecting in those early days, most of the collectors were white in the 1950s and 1960s. The ones who did the anointing, the collectors and museums and galleries, that's where race was a factor. It was like they couldn't even see him.

Detail from ‘Paris series #2’ (1987) © The Estate of Ed Clark

‘Even into his 80s he continued to change the way he approached the canvas. He talked about wanting to make that perfect picture and never being satisfied that he’d gotten it.’—Melanca Clark

AB: Let's touch on how Ed’s paintings developed over the decades. I think the current show in London makes that explicit—the diversity of his work—particularly when you get to the 1990s, when there is a very distinct shift. The early paintings are hard-edged, appearing to have been executed somewhat methodically, and then later become loose and emotive.The ‘Broken Rainbows’ have a luscious quality. 

MC: Yeah, the London show in particular really gives you the juxtaposition, of the precision pieces, which he was making by laying down tape to get the lines. Those pieces were made before I was born so I didn’t see the craft that went into them but they’re incredibly tight. And then there’s—these pieces are not in the show, but the China series, which he made after he went for a few months and was seeing the calligraphy and you can see the influence of that in that series. And he went to Nigeria, and the work after that trip is not so explicitly referential but he did go to see the Benin bronzes in Ife and those pieces are of course figurative, not abstract, actual faces but with sculptural lines, andI think you see those lines show up in the paintings.

AB: You get a certain graininess, I think, on the surfaces of those canvases. It's almost as close as Ed gets to making a sculptural painting, in the sense of actually physically lining the surface.

MC: Well, that is around the time he made the pilgrimage to see that Benin work. Another thing to note is that at the end of his career he began pooling the paint. It was plastic acrylic just pooled on the canvas, as if to see what it would do. That paint is expensive. I know that part of the evolution of the work in that instance is predicated on the material reality that he just had more money to be able to play with paint in that way.

AB: I was looking at some of the works that Ed made in the early 1960s. It was as though he was leaving splashes of paint on the surface. They were very sparse works. And then you see him approaching the paint in that way again in the 2000s. It's as if he’s come full circle, as it were. The paintings he makes after the ‘Broken Rainbow’ series become more and more minimal.

MC: I think that feeling of him circling back in the some of the work, towards the end, is true.

Ed Clark in the studio, 1992 © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo: Adger Cowans

Ed Clark, Untitled (Paris), 1998 © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo: Thomas Barratt

AB: Let’s finish by talking about the title of the exhibition, ‘Without a Doubt.’ It seems to sum up Ed’s approach to painting, as well as his character. He was quoted as saying, ‘There's not a day that I'm not an artist.’ I love that. It conveys what you were saying about your father having extreme self-belief, an unshakeable confidence in what he was doing.

MC: It's actually funny because it was a hectic couple of months for me when the show got put together and usually we talk about the title with the gallery and go over options, but I don’t recall talking with them about it. However, I was just reviewing  the video of dad’s memorial that I spoke at and I said the phrase ‘without a doubt’ in describing him, because that term really described who he was. He certainly had rage that his work was not receiving the critical recognition it deserved, but  he just had so much faith in the work and confidence that eventually it would be regarded in the right way, just not necessarily in his lifetime.  I don't know how you keep producing in the way that he did without that surety. Even now that his work is in museum collections, he would not be satisfied. In one sense, he would be thrilled, of course. But he would always be shooting for some even higher bar.

Allie Biswas is a writer and researcher based in London. She is co-editor of ‘The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980’ with Mark Godfrey. She has published on artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Julie Mehretu, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Meleko Mokgosi and Theaster Gates. Forthcoming publications include an interview with Portia Zvavahera and an essay on Matthew Krishanu.

Melanca Clark is the president and chief executive officer of Hudson-Webber Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life in Detroit. Prior to joining the foundation, Clark served in key leadership roles in the Obama administration, including chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, a grant-making component of the department, and as chief of staff for President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Clark earned her law degree from Harvard Law School and her undergraduate degree from Brown University. She lives in Detroit with her husband, Moddie Turay, and their two children.

‘Ed Clark. Without a Doubt,’ the artist’s first ever solo presentation in the UK, is on view at Hauser & Wirth London from 19 January – 20 April 2022.