Painting the Town

Hedy Clark and Adger Cowans talk to Franklin Sirmans about Ed Clark’s early days in New York and Paris

Ed Clark and Adger Cowans in Cowans' studio, late 1970s. Courtesy the Estate of Ed Clark

  • 26 October 2023

On the occasion of the recent exhibition “Ed Clark: The Big Sweep” at Hauser & Wirth on 22nd Street in Chelsea, Franklin Sirmans sat down with Hedy Clark, the artist’s former wife, and the photographer and painter Adger Cowans to talk about some of their fondest memories of Ed Clark. These are condensed and edited portions of their conversation.

Franklin Sirmans: Let me just say it is an honor to be here with you two, and thank you all for taking the time to speak and think a little more about Ed. Shall we just dive in? Hedy, let's start with you. Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and raised?

Hedy Clark: I was born in Philadelphia and grew up there. I went to New York when I was nineteen or twenty. I met Ed shortly after I moved. I was very young when I met him.

FS: How did you come together?

HC: I moved from Philly with a couple of girlfriends, and one of the girls had a friend who was going with Ed at the time. I went to a party that he was giving at his loft on 20th Street in Chelsea. When we met, I noticed that he was handsome, but other than that, I didn't pay much attention and he didn't pay much attention to me, either. But then my friend Barbara asked him to come over to do taxes for us—during tax season that's how he would make some money—and that's when he noticed me. He called me a couple of weekends later, and I thought he was calling to talk to Barbara. He said, "No, I called to talk to you. I want to invite you to the [Museum of Modern Art]." I said, "Sure," and that's how it started.

FS: Wow. This is early '60s?

HC: '65 actually.

FS: So 1965. Ed… very handsome. He's got a loft on 20th Street entertaining artists and thinkers. It sounds like something out of a movie.

HC: It was out of the movies for me, in a way. Shortly after, he was going to Paris to have a show, and he wanted me to come with him. As a young teenager, I used to watch Apache dance films and think, "One day I am going to go to Paris." Here was the opportunity, so I said, "Sure."

Ed Clark in his New York Studio, late 1970s. Courtesy the Estate of Ed Clark

FS: Let's come back around to Paris. I'm wondering, Adger, when did you meet Ed?

Adger Cowans: I met Ed in the '70s. Bill Hutson introduced me to him. Bill had a loft on 19th Street and had just come back from Europe. I was doing comb paintings then and he said, "You’ve got to meet Ed. You do something similar." I met Ed at his studio with Bill and we looked at work. He asked me to shoot some pictures for him, and he said, "You're really good, man." After that, we became good friends and he came to one of my shows of photography, and we just kind of started like that.

At that time, there weren't a lot of Black artists showing in major galleries, so Ed and Bill and I got together and talked about the business—what we were doing and why we were doing it. And we all agreed that we were going to do the work and not worry about if it was going to be shown or not. From that, we formed a union of sorts to support each other. I must have been in Ed’s loft two or three times a week back then.

FS: Hedy, did you know Ed was an artist when you first met him?

HC: I did. I knew nothing about art at the time, but I thought his paintings were really beautiful with their colors and motion. When we went to Paris, he was having a show at [Galerie Raymond] Creuze and they gave him a studio to paint.

We were there longer than I thought we were going to be there. I had told my father that I was going to Paris, unmarried, with this man much older than I was, and he wasn't too pleased. Ed liked to tell the story when I brought him to Philadelphia that my father was sitting there cleaning his shotgun, but that wasn't true. [Laughs.]

FS: Oh my God, now I know where the shotgun story comes from. [Laughs.] So late 1960s, what was the mood of being in Paris?

HC: It was great. Everybody was there or passed through there. We were in the Montparnasse neighborhood. We were at Le Dôme and La Coupole almost every night. Chester Himes came through, Ollie Harrington, Herb Gentry. And Ed knew everybody. There was nothing like it, really.

FS: Incredible. Adger, segueing back to that studio experience in New York and thinking through the political moments that were part and parcel, extending into the '70s, did you also spend time in Europe?

AC: I went to Europe later on, but by then, Ed had come back. I think Bill Hutson had just left.

FS: Was there a lot of intermingling between writers, artists and musicians?

AC: Yeah. A lot of artists and writers went to Europe because it was more open. I went to Copenhagen and London and there were a lot of artists around—Black American artists—because there was much more freedom among the people. They liked jazz and they liked artists.

FS: And how did Ed take to that conversation? Talking about the music, talking about being an artist in that term.

AC: Ed loved music. He didn't play a lot of music when he worked, but he was very knowledgeable about it. Ed usually painted without any music. There were some artists who always had music, like Peter Bradley. He said, "I can't paint without music."

FS: Something I’m curious about is other artists who were in Paris—I think Beauford Delaney…

HC: Beauford was at our marriage.

FS: Really?

HC: Yeah. One of the three witnesses.

FS: Wow.

HC: We got married in Paris.

FS: What year did you marry?

HC: May of '66.

FS: Right at the beginning when you went over there.

HC: Well, I kept getting these letters from my mom and my aunt talking about what good Catholic girls should be doing… so there was some pressure. [Laughs.] So we decided, “Why not?” We didn't know French at the time, so we had to figure out how we were going to do it. Beauford and another couple, Keith and Maria DeCarlo, they were there and they translated for us.

FS: Did Ed talk about Beauford Delaney at all in terms of the work?

HC: We visited Beauford all the time at his studio. In fact, Beauford was supposed to do a portrait of me, or it was talked about, but unfortunately it never happened. But yeah, we saw Beauford a lot.

And when that year came to a close, Joan Mitchell offered us her place in Vétheuil to stay, so one thing led to another, and he always found the resources to paint. He was always going to paint.

FS: Adger, did you and Ed talk about the differences or the likeness of photography and painting when you moved into photography?

AC: No. We talked how an image moves you, whether it has enough emotion in it. We talked a lot about spirit and emotion. Ed and I talked about paint—the different colors. If you look at those Paris series, they have a lot of pink and a lot of blue because the skies in Paris, there's no place else in the world that has a blue like that and the pink color in the evening. You could see it in Ed's work, and he was very influenced by it. He loved Paris.

When we talked about images and art making, it always had to do with emotion— if there was something in there that enriched their knowledge or understanding based on their visual history. If you've been looking at paintings all your life, you're going to have a different feeling about it from somebody that's just started to look at painting.

FS: Absolutely. Well said. And Hedy, how did you come back to New York? What was that time period and what was that like?

HC: We came back in '69. We were at Joan's for a little over a year, and we couldn't see any way forward in Paris, really. Ed had been painting the studio and then Jean-Paul Riopelle, Joan's partner at the time, suggested that now that Ed was finished painting the studio, he should be painting paintings. So, he did that for a while.

We didn't have anything coming up at that point, and we thought it was time to move on. I left first and Ed came several months after.

FS: To live back in the loft, or—

HC: No. When we initially came back, we had no money. We found what was called a raw loft. Ed was very good with his hands—he didn't do the plumbing, and we had someone to come in and put in the kitchen—but he was good at dividing lofts and doing all that. The first loft we had was on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue. Somehow we always managed to stay in Chelsea.

(From left) Ed Clark, Melanca Clark, Bill Hutson and Adger Cowans on the roof of Clark's studio, early 1980s. Photo: Adger Cowans. Courtesy the Estate of Ed Clark

FS: Adger, there's a photograph of you, Bill and Ed on top of the studio building on 22nd Street. I can't figure out who took it.

AC: I took it. I think we were all fooling around and I said, "Let's take some pictures." I went over and I took some pictures with Ed and Bill and Melanca. I had a self-timer and said, "We’ve got to do a shot in front of the Empire State Building." At Ed's studio at that time, you could see the Empire State Building, but there was a cut because of the window. I said, "Let's go outside." And so I set up an eight by ten camera and put it on a timer and shot the picture of the three of us.

FS: Such an incredible image. Could you give me another moment that you remember fondly within that period of the 1980s?

AC: Melanca! [Laughter.] She was little, and she was shooting pictures. And I remember using Ed's studio when he would go away in the summertime. And then he would come to my studio with Melanca and Bill Hutson and a couple of other artists, and we'd sit around drinking wine and talking.

We were like our own little family. We never talked about galleries or museums or any of that. We just had our friendship with each other and our kids and whatever. As an artist, you work alone—you don't have a crowd—but we were very supportive of each other. Not just with painting, but with our families.

There wasn't a lot that you could go to as a painter—there weren't that many shows. Ed would rent a place and show his work. I did that too, hang up stuff and invite people. That was the way we had shows. The feeling we got from the people about our work—that was important. I showed some things with George Preston. George had a little place uptown, and we had a show of some of my photographs. So it was that kind of thing, like homegrown.

FS: There's an element of having a place to create some of that community within commercial spaces, which I always find so interesting. You touched a little bit upon the interest of people. It's almost like there was a scene, there was a Black scene and there was a wider scene. So there was that platform, at least to some degree?

AC: Mmm-hmm. There were times that Romy [Romare Bearden] would come to some of our shows, and I knew Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis lived around the corner from me. So did Romy. And sometimes if I went up to the store, I'd call Romy. He'd say, "Come up," and we'd sit there and talk. He was very open to having people come by.

Nancy Grossman called me one time. She said, "Why don't we do something for Romy while he's alive?” I said, "What are you thinking about?" She said, "Let's have a dinner." So we had this dinner for Romy and we invited him. He comes in really late, everybody's eating, and he sits down and he says, "Adger, what's this about?" I said, "Romy, it's a dinner for you." And I thought he was going to cry. He was so honored. And so we ate, and then he said, "Let's go to my place." We went around the corner and we were up all night long. It was great. That's something I'll remember for a long time.

FS: That’s fantastic.

AC: Ed was there.

FS: Of course, of course. Hedy, I know you're working on a memoir and I'm wondering if you could leave us with one more memory that you have?

Hedy and Ed Clark in Crete, 1971. Photo: Jack Whitten. Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate

HC: The visit to Jack Whitten in Crete, that was great… flying into Paris and then renting a car and driving down the coast to Crete. Jack invited us and we were in this little town called Agia Galini, and it was before the tourists had gotten there. And I remember they had a movie theater in the plaza, you just came and they set up the screen. And Jack was a great diver. He'd go down and bring back octopus and take them to the nearby restaurant and they would cook it for us. It was great.

FS: I can smell it. [Laughter.] Thank you both.


A video recording of the entire conversation can be viewed here.

Hedy Clark is a former wife of Ed Clark. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hedy moved to New York in the 1960s, where she graduated from Hunter College and Yeshiva University. She and Clark were a part of a vibrant arts community in New York and Paris that included painters such as Jack Whitten, William T. Williams and Joan Mitchell, as well as writers and musicians. She and Clark had a daughter, Melanca Clark, who manages Ed Clark's estate. Clark spent most of her career as a paralegal and social worker, and is now retired in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Born in Columbus, OH, Adger Cowans is a photographer and painter whose work has been shown and collected at institutions including the African American Historical and Cultural Museum, Washington D.C.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, International Museum of Photography, Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem, all in New York; Cleveland Museum of Art; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Detroit Art Institute and others. His awards include the Lorenzo il Magnifico alla Carriera in recognition of a distinguished career at the 2001 Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art; a John Hay Whitney Fellowship and most recently, the Gordon Parks Choice of Weapons Award.

Franklin Sirmans is the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Previously, he was the department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 2010 until 2015 and head of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection, Houston, from 2006 to 2010. In 2007, he won the David Driskell Prize, administered by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Sirmans has also taught art criticism at Princeton University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. He worked as an assistant in Ed Clark’s studio as a teenager; as a curator, he included Clark in the third Prospect New Orleans biennial in 2014 and oversaw the acquisition of the artist’s Pink Wave (2006) as director of PAMM in 2015.