Melvin Edwards: Five Decades, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Through January 10, 2016. www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
Melvin Edwards, born in 1937 in Houston, Texas, has been called “one of America’s foremost contemporary sculptors.” He earned a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Southern California (where he was also on the football team) and has studied at Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles County Art Institute. Since 1965, when his first one-person exhibition was mounted at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, he has had more than a dozen one-person exhibits and been in more than four dozen group shows. He has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York and the New Jersey State Museum.
Several of his works are in the permanent collections of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modem Art, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He has received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a Fulbright fellowship to Zimbabwe.
The Zimmerli announcement of this exhibit notes that “Edwards’s career spans crucial periods of upheaval and change in American culture and society, and his industrial, socially charged sculptures synthesize a diversity of artistic approaches, ranging from abstraction to minimalism. Over the past five decades, Edwards has produced a remarkable body of work that has not only redefined the modernist tradition of welded sculpture, but powerfully addresses African identity and universal ideals such as freedom and individualism.”
Edwards had a 40-year teaching career — 30 of which were spent at Rutgers, where he taught classes in sculpture, drawing, and Third World artists until his retirement in 2002.
According to the biographical statement on Edwards’s website, www.meledwards08.com, “Edwards is known for creating sculpture that fuses the political with the abstract as it addresses his African American heritage.” He is well known for his “Lynch Fragments,” pieces inspired by the civil rights movement. According to the website statement, “these small-scale welded metal wall reliefs were developed in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1974, and 1978 to the present. There are now more than 200 pieces in the series. A variety of metal objects including hammer heads, scissors, locks, chains, and railroad splices are welded together in compositions that emanate intense visual and structural energy. The sculptures, usually no more that a foot tall, are hung on the wall at eye level . . . creating an impression that the sculptures are masks or faces.”
The sculptor was interviewed by the organizer of the current exhibit, Catherine Craft of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (www.nashersculpturecenter.org). Excerpts follow:
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?
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.
Craft: 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.
Edwards: I would say the dynamics more than the body itself.
Craft: 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. 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 football. That seems like an unusual mix for a young artist.
Edwards: 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 esthetics 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 11 times 11 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.
Craft: And, as you pointed out in another conversation, coaches plan and share those plays, those strategies, through drawings.
Edwards: 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.
Craft: So you’re thinking in space, but you’re diagramming it flat.
Edwards: 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 who dance.
The Princeton University Art Museum, artmuseum.princeton.edu. The PUAM’s fall season is highlighted by “Cezanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” created between 1945 and 1974 by Henry Pearlman and his wife, Rose. On loan to Princeton since the mid-1970s, the collection is concluding a world tour with the Princeton opening. It continues through January 3.
Also at the Art Museum: “Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings” focused on the artistic and cultural impact of the “Shahnama,” an epic of more than 50,000 verses composed by the poet Firdausi to recount the tales of Iran’s ancient kings and heroes. October 3 through January 24. Also “Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang” uses paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, photography, and writing to explore the sacred complex of more than 700 primarily Buddhist cave-grottoes in a western province of China. To January 10.
Morven Museum and Garden 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, www.morven.org. Opening this fall and continuing through October, 2016, is “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age.” Using photographs, newsreels, and significant objects, the exhibition hopes to recapture some of the most famous moments of 20th century America, including Anne Morrow’s literary success, and Charles Lindbergh’s controversial political leanings and secret life.
The Trenton City Museum, in the Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park in Trenton, www.ellarslie.org. “An Opening Dialogue — The Nature of Abstraction” and “On Your Radar? Regional Abstractionists to Watch and Collect.” Both open Saturday, September 19, from 7 to 9 p.m., and close on Sunday, November 8.
Opening in November: “Alice in Wonderland,” with artists’ interpretations of the Lewis Carroll classic to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its publication, and “Works on Paper: Printmaking,” Opening reception Saturday, November 14, 7 to 9 p.m. Through January 3.
The New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, www.statemuseumnj.gov. Califon-based artist Jim Toia’s “From Here to Uncertainty,” on view from September 26 through January 3. An artist-led gallery walk will be Sunday, September 27, 12:30 p.m. and a reception is 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, www.groundsforsculpture.org. The venue will be its own subject when the Princeton Photography Club opens “GFS — The Land in Pictures and Words” on Saturday, September 19. The show documents the transformation from the State Fairgrounds to one of the state’s major art destinations. Through November 1.
The James Michener Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, www.michenermuseum.org. Now on view: “Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits” through October 11. Upcoming: Images by the globe-trotting but Doylestown-based photographer Paul Grand.