Ed Clark

When Through 12/30

Where G.R. N’Namdi, 110 N. Peoria

Info 312-563-9240

Ed Clark’s bright abstractions at G.R. N’Namdi are energetic, even boisterous, with huge swaths of color interrupted by splatters or the engaging swirl or two. Clark, 80, is a second-generation abstract expressionist who grew up in Chicago but lived in Paris and New York in the 50s; he knew some of the original abstract expressionists, drinking with them at the Cedar Bar. But his paintings are more improvisational, open, and lushly sensuous than their work, in which abstraction was often meant to be a path to some truth.

Clark, who’s African-American, says that he feels race has “held me back” but has also made him try harder. His light-skinned father was fired from his job at Western Electric in Louisiana in the 20s when someone told the company he was black; after that his dad became a gambler and the family moved to Chicago, where Clark’s mother worked as a seamstress to help make ends meet. Clark copied pictures of movie stars while admiring the renderings of old masters at the Art Institute. He enlisted in 1944 hoping to become a fighter pilot but wound up on Guam. After he returned to Chicago in 1945, a Cezanne in a magazine inspired him to enroll at the School of the Art Institute. Clark considered becoming an architect but “didn’t think they would entrust a black man with a big building,” he says, whereas “there was nothing except talent that could prevent me from making the greatest painting in the world.” He did figurative work but, influenced by Cezanne, “flattened out” his images. He moved to Paris in 1952 to continue his studies and like other African-Americans discovered that “racism was not a factor in France–they categorize you by nationality.”

In Paris Clark saw abstract expressionist paintings for the first time. He became an abstract artist himself when he became unhappy with a representational painting he was working on called The City: he “started destroying it with the brush” and liked the results. He was reviewed in Le Monde and had a one-person gallery show that sold well. Wanting to create straight, wide brushstrokes, he began using a push broom–which he still uses–to mix and spread his colors after placing them on the canvas. (A 1978 review of his work was titled “Ed Clark Still Sweeps Them Off Their Feet.”)

Moving to New York in 1956, Clark found cheap studio space and an inspiring creative energy, but after a decade there, feeling shut out by the pop craze, he returned to France, separating from his second wife and bringing along the woman who became his third. Clark noticed that his palette grew more pastel in Paris. During a trip to Crete his palette changed again, and he realized that traveling to different locations would affect his work; he’s subsequently made many trips, including to Nigeria and Brazil. In 1970 Clark moved back to New York, where he lives today. By the early 70s his work was attracting attention from collectors, among them African-American businessman Reginald Lewis, who commissioned a painting for his private jet. Thanks to his success, Clark says, “my daughter went to the best schools money could buy, and now she’s a Harvard-educated lawyer.”

One of the liveliest paintings in this show of recent work is Beige Blue & Red: a sea of red surges upward toward a broad band of blue, and there are spatters from the broom-painting process that suggest to Clark that “something exploded.” The Dream and Avignon Grey were painted on an excursion to France, though he’s not sure how the region led to the works’ gentle, muted hues. On a trip to China in 1999 his guide was a woman of 23 who took him to a small village with water buffalo where he could paint. Clark says, “Her uncle had told her, ‘He’s 73–don’t work him too hard.’ He didn’t expect me to seduce her.” She’s now Clark’s fourth wife.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Dream.