Mel Edwards and His Magical Metal Sculptures

Margaret Troupe-Porter
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By Margaret Porter Troupe

The current exhibition by sculptor Mel Edwards at Alexander Gray Associates, a contemporary-art gallery in New York City's Chelsea district, packs a powerful punch. Running concurrently with a show of contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art, this little gem in Chelsea spans four decades of work and offers an elegant sampling of Edwards' art.

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The beautifully installed exhibit Melvin Edwards Sculptures 1964-2010 highlights Edwards' mastery of iron and steel by presenting his lyrical collage of super-masculine materials at its finest. Using a blowtorch, Edwards welds iron, steel, railroad spikes, iron chains, horseshoes, nuts and bolts, a conglomeration of other found metal objects, agrarian utensils and blacksmith's tools into evocative sculptures that recall African masks, as well as the transatlantic journey and the epic struggles of Africans in the Diaspora for civil rights and equal access.

This show consists of 14 juicy morsels that stimulate the intellectual palate of the viewer, leaving you ravenous for more of the artworks of one of our most prolific artists. In the show, nine compact sculptures from Edwards' acclaimed Lynch Fragments hang like black eyes on the gallery's white walls and make up a majority of the works in this exhibit. In 1963, Edwards first began this seminal series, which today continues to deliver a steady stream of inspiration for his exploration of the artistic, cultural and historical roots of the American experience in all its diversity and complexity.

Six other works are in the show, with four on pedestals in the gallery, offering a rhythmic counterpoint to the Lynch Fragments. Of those pedestal pieces, Chaino is the largest and most dramatic, reminding one of a hung (lynched) figure. As powerful as these works are, his monumental sculptures that grace public plazas across the U.S., including his homage to Martin Luther King Jr. in San Diego, offer another astonishing view of this artist's output.

Born in Houston in 1937, Edwards was raised in the segregated South in the 1940s and 1950s. He and his parents lived from 1944 to 1949 in Dayton, Ohio, before returning to Houston, where he finished high school in 1955. He lived in Los Angeles from 1955 to 1968, taking classes in painting and drawing at the Los Angeles Institute of Art (now the Otis Art Institute) before earning his art degree from the University of Southern California. His primary concentration as an art student during those early years was as a figurative painter. He also took some classes in architecture and drawing, encouraged by his parents so he'd have some practical applicability for his art studies.

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In addition to a 30-year retrospective of his work in 1993 at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N.Y., Edwards has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. He has spent a lifetime researching Third World visual culture in places like Morocco, Brazil, China, Cuba, Nigeria and Senegal, where he lives part time with his wife, the renowned poet Jayne Cortez.

An abstract expressionist, Mel Edwards is one of the most accomplished contemporary sculptors living and working in the country today. His compositions offer layers of meaning that are astonishingly suggestive and referential, derived in part from his rich appreciation of their ritualistic meanings and the utilitarian purposes of his materials, and steeped in a profound understanding of traditional African art processes and Western European artistic philosophy.

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Edwards, along with other African-American abstract expressionists of his generation (particularly those on the East Coast: Joe Overstreet, William T. Williams, Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, Al Loving), opened the doors enabling generations of younger black artists (Leonardo Drew, Chiaka Booker, Renee Greene, Nari Ward come to mind) to garner critical recognition from mainstream museums, art critics and powerful commercial galleries that have discovered there is indeed a market for black art.

The show at Alexander Gray Associates closes on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Margaret Porter Troupe is a freelance writer and arts consultant in New York City. She hosts the Harlem Arts Salon, a literary and visual arts series in Harlem.

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