A brighter world

Untitled (c.1976)

To Margate on a grey summer’s day, to the Turner Contemporary, which always has something interesting to show, occasionally exhilaratingly so. And so it was this time. The exhibition was of works by American Abstract Expressionist Ed Clark (1926-2019), of whom I knew nothing until now. Over four rooms, with a fifth devoted to a film about the artist, your eyes are opened to a brighter world.

Untitled (1957)

Clark started out as a traditionalist artist until he used an ex-serviceman grant to enable him to study in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, where he found greater freedom as an painter under a welter of influences, especially Nicolas de Staël, and greater freedom socially as an African-American. He emerged as an Abstract Expressionist. He established an individual style, firstly by using a broom to sweep paint across the canvas, then by developing collage techniques to produce canvases that broke out of conventional shapes as though they were bursting out of the frame. Later he concentrated on horizontals and ellipses, the latter emulating the shape of the eye even to the extent of having oval-shaped works. Clark could not see why it was necessary for paintings to be rectangular.

Paris Series # 2 (1987)

Clark travelled widely – Mexico, Nigeria, Brazil, China, Japan – finding greater inspiration in the light and local colours of each place. In his latter year he gained recognition, having largely overcome the prejudice of New York gallery owners who saw Abstract Expressionism as somehow exclusively White. Equally he resented being labelled as a Black artist. He changed style once again, breaking away from the neatness of lines and ovals to swirling shapes that looked like the outpourings of gigantic tubes of paint, while horizontals were now broken and irregular. He found further acclaim and enjoyed more exhibitions. He was married four times. He died in 2019.

Blacklash (1964)

So much for biography. Every artist’s life ends up the same – a succession of incidents that seldom make the art any clearer, or at least are no more illuminating than if we knew nothing of the life at all. Banal accounts of how the the artist shifted style from time to time can reduce achievement to the absurd. Of the paintings on show, only the powerful ‘Blacklash‘, a response to the killing of 15-year-old African-American James Powell by policeman, has a backstory worth knowing. But it was powerful anyway, before I learned of the history. Biographies can only tell us about lives; it takes a gallery, and our own eyes, to tell us about the art.

Yucatan Beige (1976)

I saw these things in what was on display in Margate, selective though it may have been. First, of his mature art, came colour bursting out across the canvas, to the extent of pushing out beyond the edges. Unanticipated clashes of bold colours startled the imagination. What came next was that the colours blended – aided by that broom sweeping paint across vast spaces (some of the paintings are large indeed), as colours that previously surprised you when placed beside on another now surprise you when they join together. Now we see harmony. These hypnotic horizontals are broken up by single ellipses, not so much eye-like as planet-like or sun-like.

Untitled (1970)

What unifies it all is the brightness. The colours are like seeing colours for the first time. It’s a delight in sight. Clark did not intend for his art to be representational, believing the subject to be not “seen nature” but the paint itself – “the real truth is in the stoke”, he stated. But what else can we see except what our eyes want us to see? Our minds are programmed to seek out colours and horizons. They tell us where we are and what to expect, what to look forward to. Clark shows us a brighter world.

Ife Rose (1974)

Links:

  • The Ed Clark exhibition continues at the Turner Contemporary until 1 September 2024. Entrance is free.
  • There is plenty about Ed Clark, biographical and visual, at the artistedclark.com website

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