Melvin Edwards is one of those artists who keep getting noticed for having been overlooked. Even back in the 1980s, when Edwards was in his 50s, he was already going through the “Congratulations on being discovered… again!” stage. Here in New York, he’s been a regular at museums and nonprofit spaces, starting with a show at the Whitney Museum as far back as 1970, but it took him until 1990 to find a gallery; since 2010, he’s been showing regularly with Alexander Gray Associates, which recently presented his newest work under the title “In Oklahoma” (many of the pieces having been made on a residency there). In the last few years, he’s gained an international audience, with one-person exhibitions in London, Paris, and Berlin, not to mention his participation in the 2015 Venice Biennale; later this summer, his work will be included in an important exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” Maybe this time, the rediscovery will be for good.
Given the force and inventiveness of Edwards’s work, it is hard to believe that racism wasn’t part of the reason it took the gallery world so long to give the sculptor his due. But it’s also true that he worked at a tangent to the dominant sculptural trends of his time. Many of his contemporaries were convinced that the mainstream of American sculpture passed through the minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, with its simple, additive rectilinear forms, to the disorderly “anti-form” works of Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, in which—as Morris put it—“random piling, loose stacking, hanging, give passing form to the material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied.” By such criteria, Edwards’s welded-steel sculptures, upholding the modernist tradition inaugurated by Picasso and Julio González in the 1920s and continuing through David Smith in the ’50s, might have seemed backward-looking—too monumental, too rhetorical, too humanistic.
In retrospect, it’s clear that this self–defined mainstream was far too narrow. One can’t help but notice that, brilliant as Andre’s innovations were, he was never able to develop them—his art became mired in repetition—while Morris found a way forward in sheer eclecticism, veering wildly between neo-expressionist bombast and conceptual enigmas. Edwards, by contrast, has proceeded with great equanimity and concentration to keep unfolding the unexpected consequences of the work he began more than 50 years ago.
The most obvious continuity within Edwards’s oeuvre has been his recurrent production of a series of small, wall-based sculptures that he calls “Lynch Fragments.” They first appeared in 1963, and he’s made them intermittently ever since, with several new examples in the recent exhibition at Alexander Gray. In these pieces, Edwards puts the accent on the weight and density of his materials—all sorts of found metal objects, including tools, machine parts, and, perhaps most notably, lengths of chain. Given the series’ title, it’s not surprising that these have often been seen to “evoke the manual labor associated with slavery and oppression”—an analysis that might reflect the particular narrowness of our own mainstream.
In the recent exhibition, the Lynch Fragment For Miyashiro (2017)—named for an artist friend of Edwards’s who died last year—incorporates, along with the usual chain links, a wrench, a horseshoe, and a padlock, among other things less identifiable to me. The sculpture’s scale and rough symmetry just might make you want to find a metaphor for a human head in it, but the work seems neither to demand nor rebuff any particular narrative or figurative connotations. And anyway, to my eye, the associative connotations, though inexpungible, remain secondary. Instead, the artist’s fascination with the formal experience of art seems paramount—for instance, how to evoke feelings of linear movement in three dimensions, or how to give monumental force to a fairly small object. As I looked at the piece, I became more and more involved in and aware of my activity of perception. And I came to realize that it is my vision, as it has been drawn into the complex interrelations of the positive and negative, open and closed parts of the work, that created the sculpture’s scale and discovered the largeness and seriousness of purpose that justify the historical freight evoked by the series’ title.