There are times when, as a viewer, you become intensely aware of the richness of contexts, references, influences and meanings circulating around, through and out of an artist’s work. As you look at the work, countless connections and revelations come to you, silent explosions of perception and thought that the artwork sets off, as all the while the object itself remains at the center of this proliferation, unperturbed and undisturbed.
Something of the kind happened for me at the recent show of sculptures by Melvin Edwards at Alexander Gray Associates in New York. Now in his 70s, Edwards has been making and exhibiting work since the 1960s. (On January 31, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas will open a retrospective of his work.) He is best known for his Lynch Fragments, a series of welded-steel wall reliefs that began in 1963, near the very start of Edwards’s career, when he was living in Los Angeles, and which the artist has continued to return to since. A distinguishing feature of the Lynch Fragments, inaugurated against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, is the inclusion of functional objects, or parts of them, such as hand tools, machine parts and construction elements. The source of their considerable power lies, I think, in the tension Edwards achieves between compositional complexity and visceral imagery, between sheer form and fragments of the lived-in world. He is at once a great assemblagist and a great abstractionist.
The recent Alexander Gray show focused on Edwards’s long involvement with Africa. including a number of sculptures made in Dakar, Senegal, where Edwards maintained a studio from 2000 to 2013. Edwards first visited Africa in 1970 with his wife Jayne Cortez, a poet who died in 2012. During his frequent trips Edwards met many African artists, in Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, among other countries, and for the 13 years that he had a studio in Dakar, traveled twice a year to Senegal. As he remarks in the show’s catalogue, “I don’t see my life in the United States and in Africa as separate.” (While I’m on the subject of Africa, I wonder if anyone has explored, in writing or through an exhibition, how visiting Africa has affected artists in the U.S. Along with Edwards, I quickly think of two other New York-based artists who have been deeply marked by their time in Africa: Howardena Pindell and Alain Kirili. I’m sure there are others.)
Many of the sculptures in the show, which were drawn from three different series (Lynch Fragments, Discs and Grids) have African-related titles. Some of them were made in Africa, such as Tengenege (1988) constructed in Zimbabwe. Others are composed entirely from elements sourced in Africa, such as Ginau Tabaski (2006) created in Senegal. Edwards incorporates many kinds of objects into his wall reliefs. In this show I noted chisels, gears, pieces of rebar, padlocks, horseshoes, the blade of a hoe, a set of rake prongs, a hammerhead, various types of knives, bolts and steel pipe and, welded onto many of the works, lengths of chain. Even more than the variety and specificity of these artfully joined objects, it is a remarkable density and compactness, a knotlike compression that defines Edwards’s reliefs.
Chains reappear in other of Edwards’s works such as the “chain curtains” in which lengths of chain are hung from strands of barbed wire suspended from the ceiling. Most viewers will immediately interpret all these chains as signifiers of slavery and racism, a reading that would be fully justified and within the intentions of the artist, but the presence of chains also speaks to a less evident influence—Antoni Gaudí. In a lengthy interview with Michael Brenson recently published as part of Bomb Magazine’s Oral History Project devoted to “documenting the life stories of New York City’s African American artists,” Edwards explains how he was inspired by Gaudí’s practice of planning his revolutionary designs with catenary chain models made with strings and weights. After buying a book on Gaudí in the early 1960s, Edwards began introducing catenary structures into his own work. Underlining his debt to Gaudí, Edwards tells Brenson that he has “paid much more attention to him than Caro.”
Another unexpected influence that Edwards discusses in the Bomb interview is George Sugarman, an artist known for his remarkably free use of color and form in sculpture. I suspect that few people looking at Edwards’s unpainted steel forms would think of Sugarman, but Edwards credits Sugarman, whom he met in 1965, as the artist who clarified for him “the idea that more of the environment was covered by a piece.” He also appreciated Sugarman’s use of color. A connection to Sugarman is more evident in the painted-steel public sculptures that Edwards has made intermittently throughout his career.
The Alexander Gray show included one environmental sculpture, a work that has a fascinating backstory and is linked to an important figure in 20th century poetry Titled Homage to the Poet Léon-Gontran Damas (1978-81), the sculpture consists of several large planar steel elements either freestanding, leaning against each other or against a wall, a pair of circular steel benches and a long steel chain carefully laid out in a circle on the floor.
Born in French Guiana, the French territory on the northeast coast of South America, Léon-Gontran Damas (1912-1978) was a student in Paris in the late 1930s when, together with Aimé Césaire (1913-2008) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), he helped launch Négritude, an epochal cultural movement that argued forcefully for black pride and an embrace of traditional African culture.
Influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude not only transformed a generation of Francophone black writers and became a powerful force in world literature, but also had far-reaching political affects. Senghor, for instance, would become, in 1960, the first president of Senegal. The book that launched Négritude was Pigments, a slim collection of Damas’s poems that was published by Guy Lévis Mano in the spring of 1937 with a frontispiece by Frans Masereel and an introduction by Surrealist poet Robert Desnos.
(Lévis Mano [1904-1980] was a poet, translator, typographer and publisher whose press, Editions GLM, was an important conduit for the Surrealist poets. The elegantly designed but modestly sized publications of GLM frequently included artwork by artists such as Balthus, Hans Bellmer and Marcel Duchamp. Lévis Mano also published translations of writers from around the globe.) With its frank expressions of Damas’s rage at the crimes of European colonialism and his sense of alienation as a black man in Paris, Pigments introduced a powerful new voice into modern poetry. Too powerful for some: when poems from Pigments (translated into Baoulé) were recited by African draft resisters in the Ivory Coast in 1939, the book was banned throughout French West Africa.
In a text printed in the catalogue of the Alexander Gray show Edwards recounts the genesis of Homage to the Poet Léon-Gontran Damas :“I had known him [Damas] for several years, and one day, he mentioned that his house in Cayenne [the capital of French Guiana] had burned down. It was the old family house built in the traditional style, and he was going to have it rebuilt. But soon after he got ill and passed away. He had said to me he wanted me to create a piece of sculpture, for his house, something significant. So I took that into consideration, because we were very close to him. My [late] wife Jayne [Cortez] read at his funeral, his wife asked me to accompany his casket to the crematorium. We had become like family. So when I thought about his passing, I felt a need to create a work. I did the basic structure for this piece in two months: the pointed circle, the seating area, the silhouette image of what it would be as if it were a folded page supported by a circle, and a fifty-foot length of chain on the floor. The installation is a celebration of the rise of the sun, the fall of the sun, or sunset, or the transitions of life. In a sense, the transition of culture, which is what Damas’ work is about.”
The history of modern art is rich with dialogues between artists and poets, from Baudelaire/Courbet to Rilke/Rodin, Jacob/Picasso, Clark Coolidge/Philip Guston or, more recently, Charles Bernstein/Amy Sillman. The encounter of Melvin Edwards and Léon-Gontran Damas is a worthy addition to this ongoing tradition.