“I had light”

Ed Clark's Fearless Beginnings

Ed Clark in his studio. Photo by Lipang An. Courtesy G.R. N'Namdi Gallery.

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.”

Ed Clark in his studio. Photo by Liping An. Courtesy of the artist.

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.  

No matter what I do there’s not a day that I’m not an artist.

Ed Clark

Ed Clark

Ed Clark was a significant figure of the New York School, credited with major contributions to Abstract Expressionism including the use of shaped canvases and the substitution of his paintbrush with a push broom. Born in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, Clark left high school to join the military during World War II. Upon returning from duty, Clark attended the Art Institute of Chicago and used the GI Bill to sail across the Atlantic to Paris in 1952, where he studied for a year at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. During this time, Clark encountered the work of Russian French painter Nicolas de Staël, whose thickly textured semi-abstract works became a strong influence — in particular, The Footballer, which Clark saw at the Salon d’Autumne.

Clark settled in New York in 1957, though he would continue to travel to Paris throughout his life. That same year he co-founded the artists cooperative Brata Gallery in the East Village, along with Al Held, George Sugarman, Sal Romano, John Krushenick, and Ronald Bladen. Clark showed his shaped canvas, Untitled, at the space’s 1957 Christmas group show and it is widely regarded as the first of its kind. Entranced by color, Clark became recognized for his expressive and energetic palette, understanding of light, and his unconventional application methods. He won numerous awards, including the Joan Mitchell Award in 1998 and the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013.

Shortly before his death in 2019, Clark became exclusively represented by Hauser & Wirth. His works are held in collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the California African American Museum, the Hammer Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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