Conversations with Melvin Edwards

Nasher Sculpture Center
Nov 17, 2015 4:10AM

Since the spring of 2013, I’ve talked extensively with Melvin Edwards about his life and work. A talk with Edwards moves—much like his art—with energy, force, and not infrequent bursts of humor, through a series of topics connected by associations fired from the artist’s quick-moving and wide-ranging mind. A seemingly straightforward question can prompt a spiraling string of anecdotes and observations spanning mundane commonplaces of everyday life, esoteric aesthetic concepts, and personal, familial and political history.

Edwards makes sculpture through a process-oriented approach.  Ordinarily, he works without sketches, although he is an inveterate and devoted maker of drawings. He begins with the spark of an idea, then continues associatively, based on what he sees, handles, remembers. The journey itself lends definition and meaning to the resulting composition, which became a good lesson to recall in conversation, whenever we ended up far from the subject we thought was our destination.

Edwards and I had our conversations in various places—his studios, his apartment, his New York gallery, and the Nasher’s conference room. We also talked as we drove through Los Angeles neighborhoods, and as we sat together in restaurants and coffee shops.  In sorting through our many digressions, mutual interruptions, and asides, to select the excerpts that follow, I've attempted to choose exchanges that provide heretofore unavailable information, especially about the first decade or so of Edwards’ career, and that reveal something of the artist’s concerns and, more elusively, his turn of mind. I too have worked associatively, as well as editorially, bringing together stretches of dialogue from our conversations over these last months. Edwards reviewed the results, and made changes in a few places to provide factual clarity. What follows thus results both from our actual conversations and our shared effort to document them.  A shorter version of these conversations has been published in Melvin Edwards:  Five Decades, the catalogue accompanying the Nasher Sculpture Center’s survey of his work, on view at the museum January 31—May 10, 2015.

—Catherine Craft, Associate Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center

Catherine Craft: You started as a painter, and had even been in a couple of group shows in Los Angeles, before taking up welding and turning to sculpture. Why did you become a sculptor?

Melvin Edwards: I used to say, when people would ask me why I was a sculptor, that sculpture is closer to football. I would say it’s physicality; there’s some sense of that. When I first started trying to find more experimental or unusual forms to make sculpture but was still thinking in a combination of the figure and abstraction, I would use physical positions related to football. That way, you could have complex forms that weren't reclining nude poses, or Rodin’s Thinker.

CC: So it sounds like from early on you had an ongoing interest in finding ways to bring the body or something physical into your work.

ME: I would say the dynamics more than the body itself.

CC: It’s fascinating to me that football played such an important role during your education as an artist—your high school in Houston, Phillis Wheatley, was state football champion while you were playing for them. You studied art in college, but one of the things that drew you to the University of Southern California, where you ultimately got your degree, was the possibility of playing football there. That seems like an unusual mix of experiences for a young artist.

ME: As a young artist, yes—but that’s the other thing in that period, that as a young person, at first I was much more advanced in the aesthetics and dynamics of sports thinking. The stereotype idea of a jock didn't really become a stereotype until later.  It was there a little because people would say to me, ‘That’s a strange combination,’ but nothing more than that. By the time I was teaching, which was 1965, the attitude was starting to be there. It’s the one that still survives. I often resented it because one thing people who said that didn't understand is the sophistication inside football and in sports in general.

There are a lot of athletes who don’t do well in football because they can’t comprehend the playbooks, which in professional football are as thick as a telephone book. All you see are these big men, apparently wrestling with each other, but it’s actually so sophisticated, so subtle. For example, a block means you hit somebody and move them out of the way, but sometimes you don’t have to move that person but three inches. Or turn his body a certain way so he can’t go ahead. To defeat someone like that, it’s a matter of inches. Some people are very good with the techniques, and some are very good just with the pure physicality of it. The best ones are usually a combination of both. Some teams have very sophisticated systems, and other teams were simpler. But none of them were absolutely simple because you've got eleven times eleven possibilities. And football is divided into offense and defense, and the qualities for each position are very different. All of that’s involved in the strategy. It’s like chess.

CC: And, as you pointed out in another conversation, coaches plan and share those plays, those strategies, through drawings.

ME: Yes, to plan for football, you made diagrams all the time. And those diagrams deal with space horizontally, but they do it flat, vertically, on a blackboard.

CC: So you’re thinking in space, but you’re diagramming it flat.

ME: As an athlete, you know that’s how you diagram it, but the way you function in it is horizontally, across the field. It’s the same with choreographers that dance.

CC: What was your sculpture like before the Lynch Fragments? April Kingsley refers to a group called the Liberator series that preceded them. Was it named for the magazine the Liberator?

ME: I was getting the magazine right at that time, and there was one [sculpture] that I called The Liberator, but there wasn't a series. Another one was called Bloodflower Poet; I had an interest in poetry and reading all along. The Liberator, giving it that title, marks the beginning of my real strong interest in politics.  You know, and the politics of race and colonialism and all that.

CC: How were those sculptures different from the Lynch Fragments?

ME: They were freestanding, a group of small sculptures just before the Lynch Fragments. I was finding my way.

CC: The very first Lynch Fragment was Some Bright Morning, which is a phrase that appears in an account given in Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings.  

ME: People think the piece came from the incident.

CC: It didn't?

ME: No, I was already working on it.  Any number of times people have said to me that incident is the inspiration for the Lynch Fragment series, and that piece. It was not; it was already underway. And other things were more important—I had information [about lynching] before the Ginzburg book. There was an Afro-American magazine, Freedomways.

CC: And the Liberator?

ME: Yes, and the Tuskegee Institute also kept track. Then there was the Stokes incident, which was ’62….That was just as important to me. That and Emmett Till, but they weren't the only things on the subject that got my attention. 

CC: One of the things that moves me about the early Lynch Fragments is how small they are—they’re very powerful, and seem to have this enormous force packed into them.

ME: The only thing I can say that’s really very systematic about how I work is, I tend to work in an area that’s about the size of this [dining] table. And even if I’m developing something that’s for a larger work, it just seems to be the natural way for me to work with the material. 

CC: I would guess that at first some of that was also just practical, in terms of having limited studio space. But it also seems to have been a very conscious decision.

ME: My notion was, you work smaller, you can do more works, go through more of your ideas. I mean, you’re working eight hours a day with a job, you've got a family, you gotta work at a scale that is going to allow you to really do something significant, but at the same time, that you can get your ideas out of yourself.

CC: What were those ideas?

ME: Configurations for a point of departure. Often they’re simple. But then, as you get involved in sculpture, you start to evolve a set of parameters that are intuitive.  And working in relief was clearly responding to two things.  First, it’s the closest to a drawing situation. You’re not working on an easel, but as if on a table or school desk. And then: how far can you reach? It’s almost like, that’s as far as you can think.  You know? It’s not true, but nevertheless, especially if you’re experimenting—that is, working with materials around you—then how you start tells you things about where you’re going to go.

CC: With the Lynch Fragments, do you typically start horizontal?

ME: Well, I’m working down on a table. I’m working like I’m cooking, just to put it like that.

CC: Do you decide on an orientation as you work on it?

ME: Though it’s laid down flat, you can turn it this way or that way and look at it in a comprehensive, three-dimensional way. And you don’t have to decide what’s the front or back in the beginning. Though I think fairly early on, most times, I decide that pretty early. But later on, I found I could start out one way, and it looked very definitely like ‘this is the front, that’s the top,’ and then I’d reverse it or change the angles. And then you've got a totally different set of sculptural dynamics. So, reconfiguring, tilting, reversing, and coming back tomorrow and thinking about it in a totally different way was a part of things. Especially because I was improvising always. You know, I didn't have drawings to go by, didn't want drawings to go by. I only wanted to go by what the work was giving me itself.

CC: Your comment on improvising also reminds me that you've said the inspiration for the small scale of the Lynch Fragments came, in part, from jazz.

ME: The metaphor was: complicated music done in three minutes or so in recordings, or composed for that time limit. Many of those musicians in the jazz world, playing the same piece live, might be playing for five, ten, fifteen minutes. But at the same time, the basic genius of the piece is in that three-minute frame, with possible variations. I’m sometimes hesitant to say jazz and sculpture because the notion that gives to other people is not the way I mean it. There’s no actual connection between one color and one sound, if you know what I mean.

CC: It seems to me that when you've talked about the relation of jazz to your work, it’s in a much more conceptual or structural way.

ME: That’s true, that’s what it meant for me. 

CC: Was the improvisational nature of jazz important to you, too? That they could take a three-minute piece and play it in different ways?

ME: Things could’ve gone a number of directions in that early period because the ideas led to other ideas pretty quickly. Even the Lynch Fragments have that ability, though their loaded collective title tends to make people think more about subjective notions than the dynamic artistic process.

CC: Did you ever regret the title for that reason?  You stopped making Lynch Fragments in mid-1960s, but you returned to them in the 1970s and still make them today.

ME: I never did, but every now and then somebody would say, “Oh, it would’ve been wiser….”

CC: When did you start listening to jazz seriously?

ME: It started in 1956. By then I bought my first records, and somewhere I still have them.

CC: So were you listening mainly to people like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins?

ME: Yeah, also Thelonious Monk. Almost all of them I enjoyed, but some of them seemed to be doing things that were challenging to other musicians. All I knew was what I could hear, that they handled sound differently.  I say sound because I didn't know about notes and chords. To this day I don’t. But at the same time it was clear that, say, Thelonious Monk used sound and space very differently. In my head it corresponded to the idea of positive and negative in sculpture—negative space which doesn't exist.

CC: A negative space would be like silence in music—there’s really no such thing as silence either.

ME: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. But silence is significant depending on what comes before and what ends it, what stops being and what comes into being afterwards. And negative space is form or an area of space. That’s a way of describing a phenomenon within sculpture in particular.

CC: Alongside the Lynch Fragments, you started making larger sculptures that explore that idea of so-called negative space. I’m thinking of works like Chaino which also has a connection with jazz.  In Chaino there are chains, but there’s another meaning to the title.

ME: Yes, referring to Chano Pozo, one of the Cuban percussionists who were specifically bringers of African culture as it moved through Cuba and further into the Western world.

CC: In Chaino, there’s an object like a Lynch Fragment in the center, held in tension by chains and rods attached to a framework. The framework is torqued, really skewed. It feels like the pressure of containing that welded object is enormous. How did you conceive that?

ME: The metaphor that turned into the functional and practical was:  if the metaphor for lynching was hanging—and lynchings didn't always involve hanging; most times they didn't—but if the metaphor was hanging, and hanging was an aspect of the idea of suspension, then that led me to start working with suspension as a principle in the work. In other words, every way that I think I've tried to work through the years always made me think of the other point of view of the principle. In other words:  suspended what? suspended how?

CC: And, with what I know about lynching beyond hanging, those questions still relate to that metaphor: you’re being pulled in all directions

ME: It’s the old English “drawn and quartered.” And in terms of my own history—not that you think of this stuff all the time, but you never know when or what your own experience is going to give you in relation to something you’re doing that’s totally away from it. For example, I said “drawn and quartered,” and immediately I remember carrying in quarters of beef into the market, into the store. I can see them, coming out of the truck, and that period of working in a supermarket in Houston—

CC: When you were in high school?

ME: Yes, in the meat department—so you know, I did everything to a cow but kill it. And when I got a job in ’61 or ’62 at the Los Angeles County Hospital, and I always thought, because I liked Andreas Vesalius’s anatomy illustrations, old medical books, and those kinds of things, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I can go to the morgue, and I can, you know— ” 

CC:  Have a real lesson—

ME: —and then I encountered it, and (laughing) that took care of me!  I didn't want anything to do with it! 

CC: Like ChainoCotton Hangup is also suspended.

ME: With Cotton Hangup, there’s a very specific, very thick circular hanging spot, and that was there because I worked on it so much. That’s part of the function of working on it as well as ultimately becoming one of the possible places it would be attached from.

CC: I've seen Cotton Hangup with the two chains at the sides hanging slack.

ME: Yeah, they’re not supposed to be slack.  It has the one chain that comes straight from the ceiling, but it has the other two that are supposed to be pulled tight enough that they’re really straight. I understand the psychology, once you've read about my work—it’s ‘Oh yeah, they’re Lynch Fragments, you hang them.’  Well, even murderously hanging wasn't the only way people were lynched, you know.  But I understand, that’s the symbolic interpretation of the act. But for me part of what happened in my sculptural-political combination of thinking, was, that this was an opportunity to investigate the principles of suspension.

An extended version of these conversations can be found here.

"Melvin Edwards: Five Decades" is on view at Nasher Sculpture Center, January 31 - May 10, 2015.

Nasher Sculpture Center