Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ed Clark: Reflections on Life and Art in Paris

Each time I give a presentation on Beauford Delaney's Montparnasse or lead the walking tour of the same name that I inaugurated during the Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color exhibition that took place in February - March 2016, I talk about Ed Clark. He was a good friend of Beauford as well as a fellow artist.

In reviewing the blog post that I wrote about him - "Ed Clark - 'Broom-pusher' Artist" - I remembered that I did not use all the material that I gathered when I interviewed him several years ago. I'm bringing it to you today.


Despite Montparnasse's long-established history of being an artist's haven, Ed Clark was not driven to seek lodging there when he moved to Paris on the G.I. bill in 1952. He would have lived anywhere in town, but by chance, he found a cheap room in the quartier.

He first settled in the Hôtel des Ecoles on rue Delambre (now the Hôtel Lenox Montparnasse), then moved into a top floor apartment across the street at Number 22. A skylight flooded the apartment with wonderful light that allowed Clark to use this as a studio. His building was occupied by others who were destined to become famous artists – among them Cardenas, one of Paris’ most famous expatriate sculptors, and Sugai, one of Japan’s most famous artists.

Courtyard at 22, rue Delambre
© Discover Paris!

Clark enrolled at the Ecole de la Grande Chaumière, which was very popular among students because it allowed creative expression that was not permitted at the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts (where several African-Americans also studied over the years). He described the Grande Chaumière as a “workshop school”, where students were not forced to attend classes. His experience there was different than at the Art Institute of Chicago, where there was constant interaction with students and work was critiqued daily.

Ecole de la Grande Chaumière
© Discover Paris!

Clark spoke fondly of two experiences there that spurred him onward toward excellence in his work. The first was a comment made by French artist and professor Edouard Goreg. Clark, who said that at the time he was determined to outpaint Michelangelo, was earnestly painting a nude model. Goreg came by to examine the work and critiqued Clark by saying “this smacks of the Academy (des Beaux-Arts).” Clark went on to relax his attempts at perfecting technique and allowed himself more freedom of expression in his painting. Goreg was to eventually judge Clark’s work at a show at Paris’ Gallery Craven in 1953, one of the rare exhibitions that featured American artists at that time.

Catalog cover
Peintres américains en France

The second incident occurred when Clark decided to try his hand at sculpture. Though devoted to painting, he decided to take a class in sculpture “because it was free.” He had the opportunity to sculpt the same model who posed for Rodin’s The Thinker. Clark’s professor for this class was none other than the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine, whose atelier in the 6th arrondissement in Paris was converted into a museum devoted to his work. Zadkine critiqued one of Clark’s sculptures by saying “I see that you’re a painter,” indicating that Clark’s approach to the medium and the art form was inadequate.

Clark describes himself as the first African-American painter to use large canvases for his works. The painting entitled The City (1953), measuring 51 x 77 inches, was his first such endeavor. He presented many such works at the 1954 exhibition entitled Grandes Toiles de Montparnasse that was sponsored by the American Center for Students and Artists. In 1955, he created a painting that measured 4 x 3 meters (~13 x 10 feet), which he said was the largest ever made in Europe at that time.

His work was favorably reviewed by Le Monde critic Michel Conil-Lacoste, which was significant given that the French took a negative view of art created by Americans at that time. But Clark’s gratification from this review was tainted by Lacoste’s referral to him as “a Negro of great talent,” a statement that could have been interpreted to mean that most blacks were not capable of having great talent. He met Lacoste at the café Select and asked why Lacoste had written this. Lacoste replied that he had not previously been aware that Clark was black, but that when he learned of Clark’s race, he reported it as a matter of fact, not of judgment. Lacoste was instrumental in getting Clark’s paintings into the Gallery Creuze, where he had a one-man show in 1955.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the Herald Tribune would not review Clark’s work.

Because of his fondness for his new-found lifestyle and the French capacity to “live and let live,” and also because of the success that he enjoyed with his first solo exhibition, Clark stayed in Paris after his G.I. benefits were depleted. But he ran out of money after the commercial failure of his second show and moved to New York with a group of artists to create a co-op avant garde gallery. The New York Times and other papers declined to review his work, as the Herald Tribune in Paris had done.

Clark credits his appreciation of the use of natural light and color, so important to the Impressionists, to his training in Paris. He has had numerous exhibits in Paris since the 1950s, and was one of the artists featured in the exhibition entitled Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965 that traveled throughout the United States in 1996-97. The City graces the cover of the exhibition catalog.

Catalog cover
Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965

Living in Paris and traveling throughout France has given Clark an original perspective on artistic expression and has influenced his approach to painting. He says that he would freely advise young artists to go to Paris “not for training (as I did), but for life”, but would warn them that it is difficult to earn a living there.

To sum up what Clark learned from his artistic training and experience in Paris, he states emphatically “Art must be more than correct – it must be beautiful!”


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