Melvin Edwards is renowned for his distinctive sculptures and three-dimensional, environmental installations created from industrial steel, chain and machine parts. Broadly concerned with European neocolonialism, histories of race, labor, violence and African diaspora, Edwards’s career spans five decades. The first African American sculptor to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, Edwards continues to be an important and consistent presence in American art from the Civil Rights Movement through today.
Festivals, Funerals, and New Life includes sculptures, prints, and installations created over four decades. Recent works are consistent with the formal language of Edwards’s iconic and ongoing Lynch Fragments series begun in 1963, speaking to his career-long commitment to themes of African diaspora and Black nationalism. Hung at the artist’s head-height, the welded steel sculpture Homage to Amílcar Cabral (2016) is titled in honor of Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, the successful leader of the Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau nationalist movement for independence, who was assassinated in 1973.
Historic and rarely exhibited works — such as Fed (1973), a Lynch Fragment-like form suspended from a steel base — testify to Edwards’s commitment to exploring industrial material and exploited labor. New works, such as Steel Life (After Winter) (2017), continue this commitment — welding steel tools to chains and industrial metals — while also turning inward. Exploring the genre of modern still-life, the work is a play on words as well as materials. The steel tools included are from his own art-making practice. In the artist’s words, “my interest in all of those configurations are ultimately personal references rather than what people have labeled as movements. Steel Life is my life.”
Recent works convey feelings of tension and suspense as historical symbols reverberate. In the handmade paper work Page of History (2016), a tangle of metal hangs by a chain suspended from an abstract, angular form, surrounded by darkness and a rust-red aura. The tension is sustained in the installation of Agricole (2017) — an abstract, welded steel form resembling a cattle catcher suspended from long chains. The memory of the artist's grandmother's rocking chair is also present in Homage to Coco, Providence (2017) – a new iteration of an ongoing series of rocking steel sculptures, fabricated in Providence at The Steel Yard for this exhibition.
The exhibition title is an elaboration on the title of the book Festivals and Funerals by poet and activist Jayne Cortez, Edwards’s late wife. Cortez, who passed in 2012, was a central figure of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Included in the exhibition, Cortez’s book is accompanied by “Look through minds mirror distance measure time” – Jayne Cortez (1970) a dramatic, hanging barbed-wire installation by Edwards, named after a line of poetry by Cortez. Collaborative works completed by Edwards and Cortez are also included, such as Untitled (For the brave young students in Soweto) (1984) — an abstract monoprint by Edwards overwritten with poetry by Cortez.
One of Cortez’s last public appearances was at Brown University where she participated in the 2011 Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa. A respected and influential artist, Cortez inspired and propelled Edwards’s work, with the couple enjoying an intimate creative and collaborative relationship throughout their life together. Bringing works to Brown for this exhibition, Edwards commemorates Cortez’s presence within and throughout his artwork as well as her vital contributions to art’s engagement with social justice. The exhibition and Edwards’s and Cortez’s partnership remind us that while we may stand up and be counted as individuals, our struggles and the outcomes of our creative work are not ours alone. They are shared.
About the artist
Melvin Edwards (b.1937) is a pioneer in the history of contemporary sculpture. Born in Houston, Texas, he began his artistic career at the University of Southern California, where he met and was mentored by Hungarian painter Francis de Erdely, Hal Gebhardt, Keith Crown and Hans Berkardt. In 1965 the Santa Barbara Museum of Art organized Edwards’s first solo exhibition, which launched his professional career. He moved to New York City in 1967, where shortly after his arrival, his work was exhibited at the then newly created Studio Museum, and in 1970 he became the first African American sculptor to have works presented in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Edwards is represented in New York by Alexander Gray Associates.