Douglas Frank > Review: Portrait of the artist: The works of Mel Edwards, sculptor and printmaker Rutgers Focus


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Portrait of the artist: The works of Mel Edwards, sculptor and printmaker


Alejandro Anreus, curator of the Jersey City Museum, had wanted to work with sculptor Mel Edwards for a number of years, but didn't want to do what everybody else did: the usual sculpture or the "Lynch Fragments."

"These are marvelous works, but everybody sees them all the time," Anreus recalled recently. "One day, I noticed that we had a Mel Edwards print here in Jersey City. I asked him if he ever gave a thought to having a show of his prints."

Edwards, a professor of art at Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts, told Anreus that "maybe" he had a "handful of prints" and that he would look for them, and they should get together for about an hour to select some.

"The hour became an entire day and, in all honesty, because of time and space, we left out about 20 to 25 prints," Anreus said. "We ended up with 61 works to show."

Those works became the subject of a exhibit at the Jersey City Museum, "The Prints of a Sculptor," which ran from June to October last year and caught the attention of The New York Times, The Star-Ledger and the Home News Tribune.

The exhibition is currently being repeated at the Hunterdon Museum of Art in Clinton, N.J., through May 20, under the direction of Kristen Accola, a friend and colleague of Anreus'. The museums share exhibitions, where possible, in order to reach a broader audience, according to Accola.

At Hunterdon, however, the 61 prints, produced over almost three decades in Senegal, Cuba, Morocco and various sites in the United States, will be supplemented by some of Edwards' larger floor pieces, maquettes (preliminary models) of his large public sculptures and an entire gallery of the famous "Lynch Fragments," welded steel forms that evoke the shapes of modern industry, farm implements, weapons and shackles to remind observers of the violence and horrors of lynching and intimidation.

Accola describes Edwards as "a sculptor who manages to maintain a strong identity with African and African-American history, while at the same time working within the contemporary art format. His sculpture is abstract and beautiful in its formal qualities, but when you look closely, you realize there are powerful references there to the African-American experience.

"The ‘Lynch Fragments' have some very painful kinds of references, but they're also gorgeous," she adds.

Edwards' "Lynch Fragments" are small-scale wall reliefs developed in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1974 and 1978 to the present. There are now more than 200 pieces in the series. Metal objects — hammer heads, scissors, locks, chains and railroad spikes — are employed as the raw materials for his "poetic sculptural innovation," the sculptor says.

Edwards explains that the "Lynch Fragments" series is intended to be like a "private conversation," which, unlike the larger public works, is meant to create a "one-on-one, eye-level" experience between object and viewer.

"The ‘Lynch Fragments' have changed my life," Edwards has said. "They are the core to all the work. If anybody ever knows I lived, this is going to be why."

Clement Alexander Price, professor of history on the Newark campus, in an essay in the exhibit catalog, commented upon Edwards' emergence as a major visual voice speaking to the American-African experience.

More than any artist inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, he turned his talent and, I believe, his courage toward a reconsideration of the horrors to which race must be attributed," Price writes. "That he would use race and what racism begets places him among other modernists outraged over evil. That he forces us to consider the aesthetics of the instruments employed in the service of racism places him among the world's most compelling visual artists."

The current print exhibit surveys what the artist calls an "occasional" two-dimensional activity that parallels what he does in sculpture. Indeed, many of the prints contain the same strong visual quality of his "Lynch Fragments."

"Sculptor, printmaker? It's better to say that I am an artist," Edwards mused recently. "People have ways of naming things. Sculpture is very important in my life, and it came to the fore. But I draw all the time, it's an obsession," he says of his love of drawing, which ranges from fabrication diagrams for his sculpture to what he calls "curiosity research."

But does he find printmaking satisfying? "It must be, or I wouldn't do it. Printmaking has been an interesting addition to my general growth as an artist," he continues. "Printmaking just happened and continues to happen."

Anreus agrees that Edwards is an "obsessive draftsman," noting that he carries a sketchbook all the time and is "always making doodles and buying different pens and brushes and inks." He doesn't agree, however, that his printmaking "just happened."

"Drawing is intimately connected to sculpture," Anreus observes. "It's about conceiving and defining forms. And this massive body of work doesn't happen by accident."

Some of the works on paper in the Jersey City/Hunterdon exhibit are handmade paper creations made at the Dieu Donné Papermill in New York. They look like black ink drawings but are really black cotton pulp on beige-colored linen pulp.

Texas-born, Edwards began drawing in kindergarten and realized a special ability by fourth grade. A teacher, Ethel Ladner, nurtured his art through painting at Phyllis Wheatley High School in Houston. He received a grounding in painting and drawing, color theory and art history at Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles County Art Institute, and received his B.F.A. from the University of Southern California, which he attended on a football scholarship.

Later, he met Robert Blackburn, the noted African-American printmaker, and made a number of prints at his Printmaking Workshop in New York City. "In the 1970s, it was impossible for an artist of color to come to New York and not do a print at Bob Blackburn's," reports Anreus.

Edwards was teaching at the University of Connecticut when he was offered a contract to teach at Livingston College. He came to Rutgers in 1972 and currently teaches courses in Third World art, drawing and sculpture.

He has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum and the New Jersey State Museum and has completed more than 15 public art projects across the United States. In addition, he has had major exhibitions from Paris to Japan and received a Fulbright fellowship to Zimbabwe. His research into Third World visual culture has taken him to Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, China, Cuba and Nigeria.

In 1993, a 30-year retrospective of his work (sculpture only) was held at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, N.Y. Several of his works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Utsukuski-ga-hara Open-Air Museum in Japan.