"Melvin Edwards: Five Decades” — the first retrospective of work by the American sculptor in more than 20 years — is now on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The place and occasion fit: Edwards is both a pioneering artist and past faculty member at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, serving from 1972 until his retirement in 2002.

The first African-American sculptor to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, Edwards has also had more than a dozen other solo exhibitions including ones at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, the L.A. County Museum in Los Angeles, and the State Museum in Trenton.

Edwards’ original intent was to study painting during his college years at the University of Southern California. It was only near the end of college that his interests led him to get serious about sculpture.“In many ways I am a self-developed sculptor compared to if I were known as a painter, but all of it is art, and it’s just a matter of having the mentality to make the transitions and translations as you need, and I did,” he says.

Edwards also became intrigued by the welding aspect of sculpture when he saw a couple of graduate students welding. He took a night class with one of them and after learning the basic technical aspects, he continued on his own.

He says his work evolved stylistically, noting “you were aware of the movements in art that had been significantly affected by concepts of abstraction. I was aware of those concepts and began to experiment with them myself.”

“Much of the rhetoric coming out of the art world (at the time) was art for art’s sake, and that’s a nice statement, but art doesn’t make art. People make art. And the reality of human history is that we made art for every kind of reason under the sun. It’s like languages. Human beings have evolved thousands of languages, and they are all valid, and they all have capacity to handle whatever aesthetics. The same is true in the visual arts world. I felt I needed to, as a point of departure, develop my own visual ways.”

Edwards elaborated further in another published interview: “I just didn’t want them stuck in formalist criticism; I wanted to make you think about why I made the work. For me, the whole thing about modern art is, you can invent your own game and all the rules. It’s just a matter of ‘does it come out vital as work?’ That’s the kind of thing that allowed me to think broadly even though it looks like I’m working narrowly.”

That point is reflected in his Lynch Fragments, an ongoing series of small-scale reliefs begun in Los Angeles in the early 1960s — when the artist was 26 — and born out of the social and political struggle of the civil rights movement. Many artists, writers, and creative people who lived and came of age or of conscience during those times were heavily influenced by the change the era would promote.

The Lynch Fragments — abstract yet representational, drawing on a range of artistic, cultural, and historical references — are composed of objects that can be identified with the oppression of African Americans — spikes, nails, chains, pipes, picks, horseshoes, tools, and tubes, all too familiar to anyone who knows the history of this country. Edwards takes these objects and forges, assembles, and welds them into wall pieces resembling tribal masks. He makes small, self-contained sculptures that are installed in close proximity to each other. The works are meant to be personal in scale and displayed in a manner that allows the viewer to walk right up and encounter them. They were developed in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to ’74, and 1978 to present. The series numbers some 200 pieces.

The series was started by “experimenting with form and relief and the dynamics of three dimensions and about 1963 I hit upon something that was personal enough, strong enough, and unique enough to go down that path and consequently — I wouldn’t have known it at the time — much of the last 50 years has used those as point of departure for all other aspects, I guess like a composer hitting on a way of thinking about music and then developing it for the next 50 years,” he notes.

To say that the work was inspired wholly by the civil rights movement of the 1960s would be dismissing an overlooked era of oppression that began much earlier. “The civil rights struggle started as soon as the first person was oppressed. It didn’t start in the 1960s. That’s the way popular media discusses it. The first person that was oppressed, and if we’re talking about racial oppression and slavery and the history of African Americans, well the first person that was put on a ship and brought here opposed it. The struggle still continues. As far as a topic and subject for a thoughtful person it was there so I used it.”

While not willing to take on the label of political activist, Edwards does acknowledge that he did what “ordinarily involved teachers, students, and citizens did in relation to political things. I don’t think you can call me a political activist, though it’s an essential part of the core of the ideas that I draw upon subjectively for my work. That’s why the major group is called the Lynch Fragments, because it refers to a genocidal American process that is addressed primarily to African Americans, addressed to probably all people somewhere. But in the United States, where I was born and grew up, it was a significant problem. So I’m turning it around if you will.”

Edwards cites his growing up in Houston, Texas, as the oldest of four children, in the legally segregated south. He also spent five years growing up in Dayton, Ohio. “While segregation laws were not in effect, states and places that did not have laws that were oppressive, they still conformed to the habits and customs of society in how they lived.” Though his parents divorced when he was young, they, despite obstacles, placed a high value on education. His father — who worked for the Houston Light & Power company and a pipe supply company — encouraged his son and built him his first easel.

Today the artist has an international reputation and is acclaimed for his small and large-scale sculptures. He works both in a studio in upstate New York and in Plainfield, New Jersey. His African heritage plays heavily in the art that he produces. To that end he also spends time in Dakar, Senegal.

“I think he is one of the most significant sculptors working today,” says Donna Gustafson, curator of American art at Zimmerli. “I really think that he has been doing consistently strong work. Very early on he was given his first museum show before he was 30. His career and his sculpture are so much more than just the Lynch Fragments. The installations are fantastic. The big welded steel sculpture is just another side of his work that people don’t know.”

When asked why she thinks Edwards hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves, Gustafson says, “He’s an abstract artist, but he’s an abstract artist who works with a pretty clear socially activist agenda. There was a sense that people of his generation who were artists were either political artists, or they were abstract artists, and he sort of fell between those two categories by refusing to disavow the political. It is only now that we’re rethinking the way minimalism has dominated the 1970s and allowing the other voices to come in. It is clear that these were the strong voices and that was a big part of what was going on in the 1970s and the 1980s.”

The Zimmerli exhibition — which also includes sketchbooks, works on paper, and collaborations with his late wife, the poet Jayne Cortez — was organized by the Nasher Sculptor Center in Dallas, Texas. Gustafson had heard of that effort and began corresponding to have the exhibition at Rutgers, where Edwards had been a presence. “I feel it was extremely important for us to recognize him and his achievements.”

Melvin Edwards: Five Decades, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through January 10. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

Edwards speaks at the Mason Gross School on Wednesday, September 30, at 6:30 p.m., Room 110, Civic Square Building, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick.

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