Melvin Edwards is an internationally acclaimed artist, but back in 1970, when he became the first Black sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he was received less than kindly by New York critics.
The then-32-year-old Houston native was already recognized for his metal sculptures, specifically a series of welded-steel wall reliefs he began producing in 1963 called Lynch Fragments, which the Whitney curator was hoping to display. Instead, Edwards draped and crisscrossed the white-walled exhibition space with barbed wire, partitioning it and making some corners impassable for visitors. Edwards’s installation elicited a combination of disdain and condescension from mainstream critics, who blithely ignored its obvious connotation of arbitrary, violently enforced segregation and exclusion. In a stupendous display of wanton obliviousness, a New York Times critic could only bring himself to say, “The attraction of the material, for the artist, seems to have no connotations with the purposes that barbed wire serves. As a spiny raw material, it is used with a certain effectiveness within the general ho-hum classification of once-experimental art.”
At the University of Texas at Austin’s Christian-Green Gallery 52 years later, there’s no imposing barbed-wire partition. But among the fifteen works on display in Wire(d) and Chain(ed), Edwards’s first solo show in Texas’s capital, is a tricolor lithograph based on a photograph of the Whitney installation. The print, with its subdued red, black, and green palette, shares the colors of the Pan-African flag, a tribute to the African diaspora. Even better, though, and unlike at the Whitney back then, there are Lynch Fragments on display in the gallery. From afar, the reliefs—each about twelve inches in height—appear unassuming. But up close, they reveal the artist’s uncanny ability to extract historical and political meaning from his materials. Edwards has likened these small-scale abstract compositions to short jazz recordings, “complicated music done in three minutes or so,” metaphorically speaking. Variations on an uneasy theme.
Edwards began creating the Fragments, of which there are now hundreds, at the height of the struggle for civil rights, shortly after completing his art studies at the University of Southern California, where he also played football on a scholarship. One of the Fragments on display at UT, Early Times (1986), features a set of horizontal bars and a padlock dangling from a dark metal link on one side. There is nothing inherently ominous about the items—the lock looks like an earring—but welded together, their connotations of enslavement and incarceration become a kind of confrontation. An adjacent lithograph, Sculptor’s Thought (2015), which includes a two-dimensional rendering of Early Times, is the 85-year-old’s most recent work on display, and it illustrates (literally and figuratively) how his concepts continually inform one another.
Despite, or maybe because of, the show’s heavy-duty themes, there are unexpected moments of beauty and vitality throughout Wire(d) and Chain(ed). Chibuku (1994), the other Lynch Fragment on view in this show, brings us to Zimbabwe, where the creator once enjoyed many a chibuku beer with fellow artists and friends. Edwards first visited Africa in 1970, an experience he has described as going home. Over the decades, he has lived, worked, taught, and traveled throughout the continent. Since 2000, he has kept a studio in Dakar, Senegal, and he collaborates with local metalworkers when he is there. The relief’s central object is a metal mug, tipped amicably at an angle and ready for another pour. (Even so, chunks of welded chain heavily drape the gestural toast, links spilling out from the mug.)
A rarely shown suite of geometrical drawings—studies for Edwards’s sculptures—are accented with dazzling red lines that look like bright-colored lipstick. An untitled watercolor, awash with blush pinks, brings a welcome dose of warmth and humanity. A vibrant monoprint of a solitary leopard—the only living creature in the show—celebrates the animal’s mythic power across African cultures.
“I wanted to show the connection between his interest in the diaspora but also the connections within his practice,” explains Phillip Townsend, curator of art at the Art Galleries at Black Studies program at UT. “You see it in all of these materials, the works on paper, the linkages to metallurgy that extend back to Africa.”
When it comes to the works’ ever-present linkages, there is no more poetic piece than Gorée Double Passage (2000). Edwards placed two coiled chains on a handmade sheet of black pulp, washing everything away until only the silhouettes remained. In one or two places, the chains’ delicate links threaten to break, but each chain remains unbroken. Gorée is a small island off the coast of Senegal where 20 million enslaved Africans passed through en route to the Americas: it has been called the door of no return. Gorée Double Passage, however, suggests a return. Edwards produced this work, and others like it, during a residency in Brooklyn, New York, the same year he established his studio in Dakar, Senegal.
During my gallery visit, I was told that Edwards likes to learn the word for blacksmith in every new place he visits. Metalworking is as lineal as it is individual. “For me, the past is never gone,” the artist has said in relation to the ideas and themes that connect his life’s work. Wire(d) and Chain(ed) powerfully demonstrates how all those connections are never far from Edwards’s mind.