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Ed Clark: the story of a long-overdue rise to fame

Ed Clark only got the recognition he deserved by the art world in last few years of his six-decade long career. As he once confessed to his late friend and artist Jack Whitten, he was overlooked mostly because he was black. And yet, Clark was admired by some of the most important artists of our time such as Donald Judd, David Hammons and Joan Mitchell, who saw in him a great pioneer in the field of abstract art. His colorful style, which he elaborated by using a broom to spread paint on the canvas, eventually opened him the doors to prestigious institutions such as Mnuchin gallery and Hauser & Wirth in the last moments of his life. Unfortunately, Clark died before he could really enjoy his fame, at the age of 93 last October.

Ed Clark was born in 1926 in New Orleans, and spent his teenage years in Chicago, were he became interested in drawing. His teachers encouraged him to pursue a career in art at an early age, but he joined the US Army before he even finished high school at 17 during World War II. At the end of the war, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before moving to Paris in 1952, where his art took a new turn.

One of Ed Clark's early paintings he made when he was in Paris. The influence of Nicolas de Staël is clearly present here.

Clark’s first works were figurative, much as his fellow British black painter Frank Bowling. His perspective changed during his stay in Paris when he discovered the work of Nicolas de Staël. While working in his small studio in Montparnasse on of his new abstract compositions, Clark looked for a larger brush and eventually found a broom, which he used to create an impression of movement on the canvas.

Clark would bring his invention back to the United States in the mid-1950’s, were he settled in New York to try and make it in the art world. But, the African-American painter soon realized that he « couldn’t get into a commercial gallery where a white person was running it », so he instead he created one called « Brata » with a few artists who belonged to the same thriving Abstract Expressionist art scene. In 1957, he exhibited one of the very first shaped canvases of the post-war era.

Ed Clark's pionneering 1957 shaped canvas

Clark’s paintings from this period are often characterized by intense splashes of paint, combined with the use of his well-known brooms. His vibrant color palette, which could range from radiant tones such as bright red to dark ultramarine blue, was already deeply original in the art scene of the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

After his first solo show with Brata in 1958, he had to wait until 1971 for his second personal exhibition in Donad Judd’s loft building in SoHo. He would then work with non-white art dealers such as N’Namdi or James Yu, who exhibited some of his works, as well as non-profits institutions such as the Lehman College Art Gallery.

In the following decades, Clark would travel a lot. Indeed, as he once said told the Perez Art Museum in Miami during an interview, « I’ve traveled everywhere with my art. Places that people wouldn’t go, I went. » The painter was deeply inspired by the places he visited, such as Mexico, China, Cuba, Martinique, Nigeria or Brazil. He also regularly came back to Paris.

A 1970 painting from the Moroccan series, with a central broom sweep

Despite a few more decades of hard work, Ed Clark only started his ascension in the early 2010’s, with a few important shows. In 2011, he had a retrospective at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit. Two years later, in 2013 the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago organized a survey of his works, soon followed by an exhibition curated by the celebrated African-American artist David Hammons at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York, where Clark’s works were exhibited alongside pieces by blue-chip artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Donald Judd and Joan Mitchell.

Clark working with a broom in his studio

More recently, Clark’s paintings were exhibited during 2 major group shows at the MoMa and the Tate Gallery in 2018: « The Long Run » and « Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power » respectively. Since then, these big institutions have started an aggressive acquisition strategy of Clark’s works, alongside the Brooklyn Museum, the Albert Know Museum and the Art Institute in Chicago, which recently hanged one of his paintings next to a Jackson Pollock.

The art market took interest Ed Clark in the mid-2010’s, and his prices started soaring with his solo show at Tilton Gallery in 2014, followed by his acclaimed exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery in 2018. Clark would then sign with Hauser & Wirth in August 2019, which organized his last solo show to date in its New York gallery in September 2019, a few days before his death.

One of Clark's masterpieces from the 1990's at Mnuchin Gallery

Clark’s prices at auction have never stopped rising since 2018, where he broke his record a first time with a $198,000 painting sold at Phillips New York. 2019 was an even greater year, as the artist broke his record again 2 times in a row with a $337,500 and $495,000 painting respectively sold at Phillips and Christie’s New York.

This Untitled painting from the Paris series sold for $495,000 at Christie's last week, Clark's all-time auction record

The market seems to have eventually recognized the importance of the painter, although his prices remain very low compared with other celebrated African-American artists such as Jack Whitten. Thus, his trajectory reminds us of Frank Bowling, whose work has been rediscovered recently through his acclaimed Tate retrospective.

Ed Clark’s market still has a bright future ahead. Indeed, the artist still hasn’t had its own retrospective in a major institution nor a show in Asia yet. And the painter’s estate is in very good hands with Hauser & Wirth, which will do everything to give his work the prestige it did not get during Clark’s lifetime. And it is well deserved.



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