Melvin Edwards (born 1937) was an American sculptor who attempted to work within accepted main stream aesthetic standards without rejecting his African heritage. His art addressed his existence as an African-American as well as the oppression of African people in their native countries.
Melvin Edwards was born in Houston, Texas, on May 4, 1937. His early interest in art was encouraged by his parents. His father built his first easel for him when he was 14. He moved to southern California for his college education, where he attended the Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles County Art Institute before receiving his B.F.A. degree from the University of Southern California.
After college Edwards was an educator as well as an exhibiting artist. Before leaving California he taught at the San Bernadino Valley College (1964-1965) and the Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of Arts, known as Cal Arts (1965-1967). In 1967 he moved east to be nearer the New York art scene. He then taught at the Orange County Community College, New York (1967-1969), and the University of Connecticut (1970-1972). In 1972 he went to Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he was still teaching in the 1990s.
His first one-artist exhibition was mounted by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1965. Later he had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Maison de l'UNESCO, Paris, France, to name a few. His work is in many public and corporate collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum; New Jersey State Museum; Chase Manhattan Bank; and Peat Marwick Inc. He has outdoor sculpture in Mount Vernon Plaza, Columbus, Ohio; Lafayette Gardens, Jersey City, New Jersey; on the Winston-Salem campus of North Carolina State University; and at the U.S. Social Security Federal Plaza, Jamaica, New York. Yet he did not receive his first one-man exhibition in a New York gallery until March of 1990.
Almost from the time Edwards started making sculpture (around 1963), he began a series of small welded steel pieces he called Lynch Fragments, and he continued to add to this series at various times throughout his career. These wall-mounted reliefs, usually no more than a foot tall, consist of bent and welded steel frequently combined with found objects such as nails, short lengths of chain, and discarded machine parts. Like the African ceremonial masks that inspired them, the Lynch Fragments express emotional extremes. Edwards' use of found objects not only has its precedence in modern art, but recalls the African practice of empowering so-called "fetish" figures with nails, blades, and other materials.
Shortly after moving to New York in 1967, Edwards was commissioned to produce an outdoor sculpture for Bethune Tower, a middle-income housing project built by the New York City Housing and Development Administration. Double Circle (1968) consists of four eight-foot-diameter steel disks, each with an opening in the center of approximately six feet. The four rings are mounted on edge one behind the other at sidewalk level, inviting visitors to walk through and between them.
Edwards' exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970 featured four installations of barbed wire and chain. Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid consisted of strands of barbed wire of varying lengths stretched between two converging walls to create the single plane of an inverted pyramid descending from the ceiling to a point where the two walls meet the floor. Curtain for William and Peter was a curtain of barbed wire suspended from the ceiling and weighted at the bottom by scallops of heavy chain. These works have an affinity to the dematerialized perceptual installations of the 1960s, such as Dan Flavin's fluorescent light sculptures, but Edwards' choice of barbed wire charged his sculptures with social and political meaning.
Edwards' experiments with barbed wire formed an interim between his early Lynch Fragments and his Rocker series, begun after the Whitney exhibition. The Rocker series employs large semicircular steel plates on which the sculptures rock. The series was conceived when Edwards' interest in kinetic sculpture and animated film sparked childhood memories of his Grandmother Cora's oak Mission rocking chair. Like the Lynch Fragments, the Rocker series is a theme to which Edwards continued to return throughout his career. In 1978 the Studio Museum in Harlem organized a retrospective exhibition of these two aspects of his work: the Lynch Fragments from 1963 to 1966 and the Rockers of 1972 to 1978.
A third aspect of Edwards' work is his outdoor public sculpture. In 1981 the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton exhibited six monumental works around the exterior of the museum. Like his first public commission, Double Circle, and the Rocker series, his large, outdoor pieces are, for the most part, comprised of geometric shapes. Confirmation, a public sculpture commissioned in 1989 under the art-in-architecture program of the General Services Administration for the U.S. Social Security Federal Plaza in Jamaica, New York, is representative. It consists of a 12-foot-tall disk leaning against and welded to an arch. The surface of the entire sculpture is polished steel. The influence of African sculpture is present in the geometric compositions, albeit filtered through Western Cubism.
Edwards refused to assign specific meanings to any aspect of his art, even though it is filled with layers of symbolism and implication. Hints at the artist's intent are present in some of his titles. Homage to Billy Holiday and the Young Ones of Soweto stands on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore. Homage to My Father and the Spirit is at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Angola, which commemorates the independence of that country, was included in the 1976 American Bicentennial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Also, many of the Lynch Fragments have African titles, such as Da Ten Da Mhiza. In general terms, the Lynch Fragments are personal reflections on his African heritage as well as expressions of the fear and anger of the civil rights movement. The large outdoor pieces, in comparison, are open, bright, optimistic, and playful. However, the chain, a frequently recurring motif, evokes oppression, alienation, and slavery.
Edwards continued to explore his heritage, to educate others, and to accumulate awards. He traveled repeatedly to Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, France, Mexico, and Cuba. He received a New Jersey State Arts Council grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. In 1988 and 1989 Edwards, the great great-grandson of an African blacksmith brought to the United States as a slave, received Fulbright fellowships to travel to Zimbabwe to conduct workshops in the art of metal sculpture for artists of that country.
Melvin Edwards, the exhibition catalogue published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, in 1978, includes an essay by Mary Schmidt Campbell and "Notes on Black Art," a statement written by Edwards at the invitation of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. (The Whitney refused to publish it.) Melvin Edwards: Sculptures 1964-84 was published by the Maison de l'UNESCO in Paris, France, in conjunction with an exhibition there in November 1984. It includes essays, in French, by April Kingsey and Mary Schmidt Campbell and a statement by the artist. "Black Art: Talking about Books," in the Two Rivers Quarterly (London, 1970) is an article on Edwards by Frank Bowling, a frequent contributor to Art News and Arts magazine on African-American art.
For contextual background, Since the Harlem Renaissance: 50 Years of Afro-American Art, the catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Center Gallery of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1984, includes statements by many of the artists as well as brief essays about the history of African-American art. Also, The Pluralist Era: American Art 1968-1981 by Corinne Robins (1984) includes a chapter on African-American art and artists.