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Melvin Edwards’s work picks up where the traditional medium of sculpture—until the 1960s, associated with the production of anthropomorphic figures in the round—left off. The beginning of his career coincides almost exactly with Minimalism’s expansive redefinition of sculpture to include any three-dimensional object classifiable as art. While Donald Judd and Robert Morris were exhibiting their first stripped-down, spatially commanding objects in 1963–64, Edwards was learning to weld. Thirty years earlier, the addition of welding to the tools available to a sculptor also expanded the medium, making possible the techniques of construction and assemblage in materials rivaling the permanence of marble or bronze. Welding was originally identified with “drawing in space,” based on the use of metal wire in the first welded sculpture, made by Pablo Picasso and Julio González in 1928. Definitive of mid-century American sculpture, welding and abstraction ignited a new sculptural tradition led by David Smith. Edwards is that tradition’s heir, incorporating conscious, and probably unconscious, references to many of its most famous practitioners. In this sense, Edwards’s body of work represents the history of welded sculpture.
A traveling retrospective, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas was organized by Associate Curator Catherine Craft. The exhibition includes over sixty sculptures, several maquettes for public sculptures, and a scattering of preparatory drawings. Edwards’s works range from a Cubist-derived formalism to a 1950s kind of Beat surrealism that transformed urban detritus into new poetic realities. Through titles and materials, they offer subtle meditations on African American and African conditions. Combined with the Euro-American artistic tradition, this subject makes Edwards’s work international in scope.
Born in 1937, Edwards grew up in Houston and attended college in Los Angeles, where he lived with an aunt. At the University of Southern California (USC) on a football scholarship, he majored in painting. Edwards learned to weld from a graduate teaching assistant at USC and completed his first remarkably mature sculptures, which are included in the Nasher exhibition, before officially receiving his BFA degree. He moved to New York in 1967, where he and two other African American artists collaborated, under the name of Smokehouse, on immense abstract paintings on walls in Harlem. Like many African Americans of his generation, Edwards was immersed in “black internationalism”—detailed in Tobias Wofford’s fascinating and informative essay in the exhibition catalogue—which attracted people of African descent from all over the world to Africa. Edwards first visited Africa in 1970 and has owned a second home in Dakar, Senegal, since 2000.
Edwards’s best-known works are the Lynch Fragments. The series of small, head-size reliefs was initiated in 1963, and so far includes over two hundred examples. According to the artist’s instructions, they are hung noticeably high on the wall, at the artist’s eye-level of sixty-nine inches instead of the typical fifty-eight on center. Forged and welded pieces of scrap metal are combined with functional metal objects, such as chains, horseshoes, and tools from Africa. In each sculpture, the elements are tightly fitted together with few gaps, almost puzzle-like. In their use of evocatively transformed yet more-or-less recognizable tools, Edwards’s Lynch Fragments recall Richard Stankiewicz’s “junk sculptures” of the 1950s but owe their greatest debt to David Smith’s Agricola series (1951–57) made from parts of farm equipment. Generally maintaining the color of weathered or rusted steel, the Lynch Fragments are occasionally finished with reflective silver patches that contrast with blackened areas to heighten their three-dimensional forms.
The surfaces were especially remarkable at the Nasher, where fourteen Lynch Fragments were shown together in natural light from the museum’s glass front wall and ceiling. The tightly spaced rows—seven sculptures on adjacent walls—emphasized the repeated use of certain objects like chains and padlocks that set up a narrative of slavery and imprisonment. Danger and violence are also suggested by, for example, the protruding pointed ends of two railroad spikes in Gulley Hammer (Lynch Fragment) from 1980. The curved, horn-like spikes are attached with lumpy welds to the left and right sides of a circular back plate while two padlocks hang at the lower perimeter. The triangular composition of Sekuru Knows (Lynch Fragment) (1988) is constructed from pieces of silvery metal plates, rods, and pipes. At the front of the seven-inch-deep relief, a large, unaltered pair of scissors with open, weapon-like blades is bound with a chain, conveying a sense of restraint and resistance. The word sekuru in the title, according to an exhibition brochure, means “uncle” or “wise elder” in the African language of Shona. Like many of Edwards’s evocative titles, its origin is anecdotal: during one of his teaching stints in Zimbabwe, Edwards overheard a student refer to him, assuring a classmate, “Sekuru knows.” The title of Some Bright Morning (1963), the first work in the Lynch Fragment series, derives from the young Edwards’s absorption in the Civil Rights Movement and its history. As reported in 100 Years of Lynchings, edited by Ralph Ginzburg (New York: Lancer Books, 1962), which Edwards was reading at the time, members of a black family in Florida were told by white people, “Some bright morning they were coming to get them.” The sculpture makes one of the more explicit references to lynching: a rock-like lump of melted steel dangles at the end of a chain, which extends about four inches below the main body of the relief. Jutting out from a side of the sculpture, an elongated metal triangle resembles a threatening knife blade. In his catalogue interview with Craft, Edwards notes that his frequent use of suspension as a method of joining sculptural elements is a metaphor for lynching.
Other works incorporating suspension seem less overtly violent. Chaino (1964) appears buoyant, in my opinion, even gravity defiant, although Craft, in her catalogue essay, compares its flattened chunk of black scrap steel hanging from a rectangular armature to “a person about to be torn apart by a mob.” The narrow ends of the eight-and-a half-foot-long steel-bar support are formed by two right triangles with reversed orientations. The support’s top horizontal is thus set at a slight angle. The armature is a latter addition; the central mass of Chaino was suspended from the wall and ceiling in Edwards’s first show in 1965. The addition of the support, however, makes the work more formally interesting by slightly twisting the suspended mass with, as Craft notes, a “torqued” frame. In many of his early sculptures, Edwards used the framed spaces created by cage-like armatures of steel rods or bars, introduced by Albert Giacometti and Herbert Ferber. Suspended inside the lattice, Edwards’s compact masses of crushed steel packed with potential energy recall John Chamberlain’s work. Particularly notable in this show, Edwards’s August the Squared Fire of 1965 (named for the Watts riots that took place in August 1965) seems to burst from its upright rectangular frame.
Much of the critical attention to the Nasher show has focused on the recreation of Edwards’s 1970 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, that institution’s first show by an African American artist. Installed in the Nasher’s lower-level gallery, which was configured to resemble the Whitney’s lobby gallery, Edwards’s exhibition included four barbed wire sculptures produced or altered for the site. Strands of the wire were draped from ceiling to wall or stretched across corners to “draw in space” each sculpture’s volume and contour. Curtain for William and Peter (1969–70/2015) was originally exhibited in 5 + 1 at the State University of New York Stony Brook (1969) and reprised for the Whitney and the Nasher. Dedicated to African American abstract painters William T. Williams, the founder of Smokehouse, and Peter Bradley, Curtain for William and Peter is a long, barrier-like row of barbed wires, hung from the ceiling to near the floor, with a scalloped hem of heavy chains. Despite the weight of the chains, the vertical barbed wires are not pulled taut but retain the wavy twists of the twined strands that grip the menacing barbs. In all four sculptures, the new, shiny silver barbed wire—unlike the familiar rusted wire of rural locales—glints and disappears under gallery lights, approaching insubstantiality. Viewed through the glass entrance wall of the gallery at the Nasher, the installation was practically invisible, a surprising effect given the material’s injurious nature.
Edwards has also had a robust career in public sculpture. Constructed of stainless, painted, or Cor-Ten sheet steel, these sculptures tend to be highly formal and abstract, lacking the Lynch Fragments’ threatening or incendiary implications. Unlike the crushed black assemblages, they reflect the influence of Anthony Caro, whose work typifies the modernist genre known as public sculpture. While not an outdoor sculpture, the Cor-Ten steel Good Friends in Chicago (1972) is comparably formal, striking a perfect balance of compositional simplicity and complexity. Installed in another sunlight-filled gallery at the opposite end of the museum from the Lynch Fragments, Good Friends in Chicago is part of Edwards’s Rocker series, incorporating parallel C-shaped supports, like the footings of a rocking chair that, even at rest, convey a sense of motion. Good Friends in Chicago includes two rockers. One sits on the ground; the other is stacked at an angle on top. Like “rocking tables,” they consist of long steel rectangles with half-disk steel plates welded to either end. On one side of the lower rocker, two crossbars or picnic table-like legs replace the curved plate and supply a sense of stability. Due to the opacity of the steel plates, the crossbars are more or less visible. The degree of implicit movement or stasis depends on the viewer’s vantage point. As one walks around the sculpture, which is unified by a warm, mottled patina, this disjunction gradually appears, takes a moment to comprehend, and is ultimately satisfying.
Overall, Edwards’s work is rife with stylistic and conceptual—if not material and technical—contradictions, potentially fraught with discord. Nevertheless, Craft and the Nasher designed a fluid and compelling exhibition, which ranges from the clenching brutality of the Lynch Fragments to the seductive formalism of Good Friends in Chicago. For making comprehensible such a bountiful but antipathetic oeuvre, Craft deserves great credit.
Professor and Deedie Rose Chair of Art History, Texas Christian University