“I had light”
Ed Clark's Fearless Beginnings
A fiercely dedicated abstractionist, Ed Clark is recognized for his uncanny ability to capture light and color on canvas using unprecedented and experimental methods. To hear Clark narrate his life – from a childhood without electricity in Louisiana to enlisting in the military in World War II to early days painting in a fourth floor studio in Montparnasse – it’s possible to almost be lulled into believing that Clark was hardly even trying to be recognized as a groundbreaking artist. What may be closer to the truth is that Clark understood, deeply, that traveling widely and soaking up the world and its experiences could, and would, help infuse his art with its sublimely luminous power.
“I’ve traveled everywhere with my art,” Clark said, “Places that people wouldn’t go, I went.” By the time he painted Untitled (from the New York Series) in 1960, Clark had ditched finishing high school to serve in the army (stationed in Guam), studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and traveled to Paris on the GI Bill, where he joined a cohort of American expatriates including James Baldwin, Beauford Delaney, Al Held, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, and Richard Wright.
In Paris, Clark knew he needed a studio for the scale he wanted to work on so he rented a windowless fourth-floor space in the Montparnasse district. “No one would have taken it,” Clark said. Eating and sleeping from a loft suspended and swaying from the ceiling, Clark painted with minimal light until the landlord climbed onto the roof and cut ad hoc skylights into the ceiling. “Suddenly, I had light,” Clark said, “Then people envied me, I had light.”
This anecdote is prescient for a painter whose oeuvre, as critic Geoffrey Jacques put it, contains a “turbulent luminosity.” It also hints at Clark’s steadfast commitment to painting as an African American man living within structures that did not always accommodate him. While Clark adamantly did not want to be pigeon-holed as a black artist, he did note that he “couldn’t get into a commercial gallery where a white person was running it.”
There in his skylit Montparnasse studio, Clark developed the painting technique that he is best remembered for today: the push-broom brush. While at work, Clark found himself needing a wider brush and, ever-resourceful, found the tool he needed in the janitor’s closet. "The moment I take the broom,” Clark recalled, “that gives a different kind of energy.” Just one year later, in 1957, Clark returned to New York where he co-founded the cooperative Brata Gallery in the East Village. Later that year, he debuted another radical innovation: the non-rectangular canvas.
It was during this wildly generative period that Clark painted Untitled (from the New York Series). Clark continued to paint over the decades that followed, never ceasing to experiment. Rife with energy and motion, Untitled shows Clark’s affinity for both wide, single brushstrokes and for letting light in – a work that represents Clark’s fearless beginnings and heralds the recognition to follow.