A Sculptor Turns to Printmaking
Melvin Edwards speaks of making prints as an ''occasional'' activity for him. But as the sculptor remarked to Alejandro Anreus, the curator of a survey of his prints now on view at the Jersey City Museum, eventually "this 'occasional' activity becomes a substantial body of work."
The survey, which will also be shown at the Hunterdon Museum of Art in Clinton next spring, includes nearly 50 printed works made between 1973 and the present. The techniques used include etching, lithography, and serigraphy, and there are a substantial number of monotypes -- works printed in such a way that no further impressions can be made of the image, so that each monotype is unique, like a drawing, not editioned as prints are usually meant to be. As if that were not enough, the show is filled out with a number of drawings, notebooks, and some very recent works in handmade paper, as well as a group of small sculptures from the early 70's.
Born in Houston, Mr. Edwards studied printmaking at the University of Southern California in the late 1950's, but later became committed to sculpture. He has been on the visual arts faculty of Rutgers University in New Brunswick since 1972. His welded iron constructions have made him one of the most renowned contemporary exponents of the modernist tradition that began with Julio Gonzalez and includes David Smith, and one of the best-known African-American artists of his generation.
Mr. Edwards's return to printmaking was instigated by Robert Blackburn of the Printmaking Workshop in New York's East Village. Mr. Blackburn has initiated several generations of artists into the mysteries of the medium. "If Bob Blackburn is standing at the door of the Printmaking Workshop and a dog walks by and pauses," the sculptor told Mr. Anreus, "Bob will get him in the shop and convince him to make a print."
As Mr. Edwards said recently: "Bob had said, 'Come and see what you can do.' And then came a couple of cold days when I didn't want to drive out to the studio, so I decided to give it a try." Mr. Edwards, who lives in New York, has a studio in Plainfield.
The Jersey City survey of Mr. Edwards's prints could almost double as a travelogue, since he has participated in printmaking workshops in places as far-flung as Senegal, Cuba and Morocco, as well as throughout the United States.
He is generally thought of as an abstract artist, but Mr. Edwards's self-portrait turns up regularly in the prints he has made in his travels -- as if to establish his identity in changing contexts. "I'm always going to be the same person, always an artist, no matter where I am," he said. "If a go to Hawaii, I'm not going to turn into a hula dancer, although I might end up having a few drinks and getting up to do the hula."
Not all the prints are self-portraits. Most are abstract, and many are more closely connected to Mr. Edwards's sculpture than might at first be apparent. For instance, a group of 1984 monotypes are essentially free-hand portraits of sculptures from his "Lynch Fragments" series.
More often, Mr. Edwards uses components of his sculpture, or some of the tools he uses in making it, as mark-making instruments. The forms in the prints include those of metal objects like hammers, knives, chain, wire, hooks, window bars, horseshoes and railroad spikes, all of which might be raw materials for Mr. Edwards's sculpture. The C-shaped forms that turn up in some of the monotypes have been printed from the elements Mr. Edwards uses to make some of his constructions into rockers. "ust as I turn these materials into sculpture, I can turn the sculpture into a tool,"he said. "he print becomes a kind of translation of the sculpture. So my way of making prints is consistent with my sculptural use of existing materials."
Each material has its own formal characteristics, Mr. Edwards said. "You can use a wire to make a line," he said, "but if the wire is barbed the line becomes much more dynamic." The materials may have very definite associations, and Mr. Edwards has never been loath to use the metaphorical potential of the materials he uses in abstract sculpture to evoke uncomfortable realities. His works are often "images of hurt, oppression, defiance and survival," as the historian Clement Alexander Price has put it. But Mr. Edwards cautions against one-dimensional interpretations. His use of chains cannot help evoke the experience of slavery, but that hardly exhausts the material's meaning. "If your car is broken down in the Jersey woods," he said, "you're happy to see them coming with the chains."
MELVIN EDWARDS: THE PRINTS OF A SCULPTOR Jersey City Museum, 472 Jersey Avenue, Jersey City. Through Oct. 7. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. (201) 547-4514