Melvin Edwards: A Promise of Safe Passage

04/08/2021     Modern & Contemporary Art

NEW YORK, NY -- Passage has stood at the entrance of the Marine and Academic Center (aka the MAC building) at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn since 1991. Like much of Melvin Edwards’ sculpture, Passage speaks to both the horrors of the past and the determination of the future. A welded stainless-steel structure, its simple forms balanced precariously yet gracefully, Edwards’ Passage features an arch that provides a literal passageway in addition to the metaphorical concepts of passage that the work implies.

Born in Houston in 1937, Melvin Edwards showed a proclivity for art at a young age, and his parents encouraged his gifts. A voracious reader, Edwards pored through issues of National Geographic as a young boy. Those pages gave him his first glimpses of Africa and its history, which would become crucial to Edwards’ life and work in the decades to come. By his junior year of high school, Edwards was taking art courses at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He was one of only six students chosen for this program. Studying at USC in California, mentored by the Hungarian painter Francis de Erdely, Edwards discovered sculpture shortly before graduation, essentially abandoning painting to immerse himself in the three-dimensional medium. “Welding opened up sculpture for me,” Edwards would explain.

Following his first solo exhibition in 1965 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Edwards relocated to New York in 1967 where he exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem shortly after his arrival. Founding and leading the Smokehouse Collective in Harlem from 1968-70 along with William T. Williams, Edwards insisted on giving back to his community – the Smokehouse group was formed around the question “can abstraction solve social justice?” Edwards felt that abstraction was a pluralistic concept, and one that had ample room to include social commentary. Creating minimal geometric abstraction, not dissimilar to the forms later seen in Passage, Edwards was deliberately making a delineation between the “wall paintings” the Smokehouse Collective created and murals – which he felt were both larger in scale and existed for a wholly different purpose. Edwards and Smokehouse created works that addressed societal concerns, with Harlem’s housing issues of paramount importance. The annual community mural project at 121st and Sylvan that continues to this day is largely due to Smokehouse’s influence. Edwards would continue to expand on public art projects around this time, and in 1969 he began commissioned outdoor pieces that shared this same Minimalist geometric style. Homage to My Father and the Spirit was Edwards’ first such public sculpture, for Cornell University in Ithaca. Harlem Double Circles at the Bethune Towers housing complex in Harlem would follow in 1970.

In 1970, Edwards was the first African American sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The show was sadly overlooked by many and discredited by others. Robert Pincus-Witten of Artforum criticized the show as being “geometrical minimalism and anti-form,” then doubled down by intimating that the Whitney should have instead focused on artists like Carl Andre or Dan Flavin. As Edwards had come of age during the Civil Rights movement, he and peer African American artists – friends Frank Bowling, Lorraine O’Grady and others – were no strangers to rejection, and more than willing to push back against the status quo of the art world. Edwards was not afraid to pass on group shows focusing on Black artists if he felt them limiting or done in bad faith: “You would never call a large exhibition which had no Black artists a White show, but I would.” Edwards did not tolerate pandering and would not soften the social messages inherent to his work, even if it may have been commercially prudent to do so.

While in Los Angeles, Edwards began a series that while aesthetically very different from his minimal work is among his best known. Lynch Fragments, begun in 1963-67, addressed Civil Rights and African American history. Edwards picked it back up again in 1973-74 in response to the ongoing Vietnam War, then again in 1978 and continuing sporadically to the present. The series is comprised of welded sculptures made of chains, railroad spikes, tool blades, scissors, locks and other found metal elements. The sculptures were designed to be suspended, or to hang from walls, to mimic the physicality of lynchings. These works were welded as they were designed, with no preparatory sketches. In this element of chance and spontaneity, Edwards' took cues from the improvisational jazz of musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The assemblages are meant to be hung in a single row at eye level, and in this way, they confront the viewer. “It’s like the principles of the size of doors: they fit all human beings.” Edwards explained, his intention also to reflect on traditional African masks, and for the viewer to then see themselves reflected in the work. As his Great-great-great Grandfather was a West African blacksmith, Edwards feels that, through his African travels and careful research, his work represents something innate which always lived within him – inherited more so than influenced. “They stopped being born in Africa,” Edwards would explain of African Americans, “they stopped being raised in Africa, but the Africanity within them continued.” These traditions of craft are hardwired into Edwards’ DNA. The Lynch Fragments series does many things, possibly none more important than linking African art to African American art, from centuries-old traditions to Contemporary works. While it seems logical that Edwards was continuing down the path of welded found art pieces as done by Richard Stankiewicz, Mark di Suvero and others working somewhat simultaneously, Edwards was seemingly unaware of their work because he was living on the West Coast and not privy to much of the goings-on of the current New York art scene. Looking at both the contemporary art as well as the traditional art of Africa, Edwards examines the evolution of forms and practices, as well as the commonality of art and sculpting shared in both African and African American cultures.

Loaned to the exhibition by former college President Leon M. Goldstein, Maquette for Passage was featured in Passages: Sculptures and Prints 1989-2017 at Kingsborough Art Museum, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, from April 16 – May 18, 2016. This exhibition marked the 30-year anniversary of Passage, which Edwards created for the school in 1990. The maquette retains the simplicity and grace of the full-scale sculpture, its shining steel discs stacked like a shimmering house of cards. The title Passage recalls the Middle Passage Transatlantic slave trade route, though as Edwards’ sculptures are designed to contain pluralistic interpretations, Passage also provides the ability to physically pass through the sculpture and pays homage to the passage of students through the journey of education. The work is a transformative passageway – historically, physically, emotionally, intellectually. While noting the abominations of the past, Edwards created a work that is boldly optimistic. The sculpture has served as a stoic landmark and backdrop to commencements, performances and cultural events on campus. Michael Brenson of The New York Times gushed over Passage, declaring it to be “One of the clearest of Mel Edwards’ sculptures, one of the most successful formally, and one of the most responsive to light and air.” The negative spaces within and without the geometric planes appear as passageways, archways in which students may pass through, where children can play, a structure to contemplate or traverse. Light reflects and dances on the flattened surfaces, and where a similarly massive Minimalist abstract sculpture by Richard Serra may appear as monolithic, Edwards’ passage has an airy poise that belies its volume.

Even when referencing centuries of abuse, slavery, Jim Crow; addressing struggles that continue today in the form of voter suppression laws and the ongoing Derek Chauvin trial, Melvin Edwards’ work reveals a path to freedom. The pieces are heavy – literally and figuratively – but they are not weighed down by the implied history welded to them; their weight implies strength, sense of purpose, an unwillingness to yield, a continued march toward peace and equality. Passage is about the future: students working towards an education that will help provide them a career. Artnews declared that Edwards’ work “not only confronts struggle but celebrates it.” Passage is, like so much of Edwards work, an account of the tragedies of the past and a mile marker for a better future to come, acknowledging oppression but offering hope.

Post-War & Contemporary Art
Auction Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 2pm
Exhibition April 17-19

Lot 1036
Melvin Edwards
American, b. 1937
Maquette for 'Passage', 1989-91
Signed and dated Melvin Edwards 1989-91 and inscribed Passage
Welded steel
12 x 14 1/2 x 12 inches (30.5 x 36.9 x 30.5)
Leon M. Goldstein, former President of Kingsborough Community College and former acting Chancellor of the City University of New York
Thence by descent to the estate
Brooklyn, NY, Kingsborough Art Museum, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, Passages: Sculptures and Prints 1989-2017, Apr.16 - May 18, 2016
This work is a maquette for Passage, which currently is on-site at CUNY/Kingsborough College, Brooklyn.
Estimate: $20,000-40,000