The Abstract Reaches of Human Representation


Ed Clark, American born 1926

is a second generation Abstract Expressionist (the New York School). 

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the artist has a long and somewhat neglected history of painting.

It is difficult to understand why it is so hard to see his work.





Untitled, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2017.  Ed Clarke, American born 1926, MOMA, NY



You would like to think that this is not about his race:  he is an African American. But then it is not easy, either, to see the work of the African American artist, Norman Lewis, who was an Abstract Expressionist at the first hour and left a large, wonderful record of his experimentation.





Detail of Untitled, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2017.  Ed Clark, American born 1926, MOMA, NY



Abstract Expressionism has, of course, long been overtaken by so many other kinds of expression.  And a certain neglect may be intentional of those who openly identify still with that movement.


Ed Clark paints on the floor, pushing the acrylic – varying consistencies – with a broom across the unprimed, sometimes slightly soiled canvas.  He also uses stains; and spatters his paint.





Detail of Untitled, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2017.  Ed Clark, American born 1926, MOMA, NY



The result is the most sensuous painting I have seen from any man of this group, the New York School, about whom the received wisdom is, of course, of their all-overshadowing macho heterosexuality.


This group had no stylistic unity but they had their strict rules about no story telling and no representation of any scene or figure.  Nothing recognizable on the canvas.

Only the spontaneous assertion of the artist and his or her emotions through the act of painting. 





New Orleans, Series #5, 2012. Ed Clark, American born 1926. Photo from the net




Untitled, 1978-80.  Ed Clark, American born 1926.  Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY



But these rules are not that clear to me. 

No story-telling, no figuration and nothing recognizable on the canvas: clear enough.


But representation? I haven’t understood the no-representation rule when it comes to work in which artists have engaged more than just their mind-arm-wrist-fingers-paintbrushes.





Detail of Untitled, 1978-80.  Ed Clark, American born 1926.  Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY




The artist’s body is in these works  (as are, imaginatively, the bodies of all of us who have been made giddy by his invitation to indulge in this slathering of heavy cream). 





Paris, 2009.  Ed Clark, American born 1926. Photo from the net



How, then, is it that he is not representing his own body in his work?  Not merely his spontaneous emotions?



Ed Clark’s technique is not in the lineage of this gorgeous painting, 1954, by Philip Guston, a celebrated Abstract Expressionist;  until he wasn’t. 




Philip Guston Painting 1954 MOMA

1954, oil on canvas.  Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada. MOMA, NY



Of this painting, the artist said that he could barely wait – in between strokes – to apply the paint in the seconds when his fingers were at his palette and not at the canvas.


A painting which meets all the conditions of the group  – a painting of the artist’s emotions, translated by his mind into paint strokes applied onto canvas by his fingers. 


I love this painting for its restraint, its layers, the odd balance of its imbalance. I like every mottled, stippled, striped, splotched and dappled thing.  I like its non-macho colours, of course!


And I can see how it meets the conditions of an Abstract Expressionist painting.



A part of Philip Guston Painting 1954 MOMA

Detail of 1954, oil on canvas.  Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada. MOMA, NY



But my judgment isn’t sound because, first and foremost,  I much admire the artist for his courage.


Saying that he wanted to tell stories and that he felt imprisoned, the Abstract Expressionist establishment expelled him from the golden group in the late 1960s to live and work outside New York city, to which he never returned. 


Abstract painting, he said,is misleading in its drive towards purity and autonomy and its hostility to the making of images.  And painting, he said is about adjusting impurities. 

The impure soiling of some parts of Ed Clark’s canvas: so inviting and understandable.


I like best the Abstract Expressionist work which did not wholly conform to its own definition. 

Its definition was inhuman and the consequences of not abiding by them inhuman also.

I like the Abstract Expressionist work which worked its way around its definition.


Oliver Lee Jackson – American, born 1935 from an exhibition of his recent paintings at the National Gallery, Washington, DC until September 15, 2019



I appreciate the clarity of approach to figuration and abstraction of Oliver Lee Jackson.  We don’t have to struggle with what is abstraction and what representation.


Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he has been an artist for 50 years: painting, sculpting, print-making, working his art in his community. 

He has infused his art with the jazz cadences of his close friend and comrade (in the Black Arts Group in St. Louis), the composer and saxophonist, Julius Hemphill (1938-1995).

Oliver Lee Jackson lives now in Oakland, California. 




Painting, 2003, water-based pain and silver leaf on canvas



The artist says that his art is based in figuration but that these figures should not be linked to actual people or real-world scenarios.




Painting, 2003, water-based paint and silver leaf on canvas



Jackson says also that he is not telling a story of any kind and that he is content to leave the interpretation of his art to viewers.  




Painting, 2003, water-based paint on canvas



Here then is an exploration of figuration chased, stretched, metamorphosed into abstract forms to represent humans accommodating themselves to the world and adapting the world to their way of moving.









Painting, 2004, oil-based paint, enamel paint, applied linen and mixed media on linen



Another way of saying this is is that here is an artist who doesn’t see the definition of ‘abstraction’ and ‘figuration’ as necessarily excluding each other when it comes to painting the human experience.





Painting, 2009, oil-based paint on linen







Painting, 2010, water-based paint, metallic enamel paint, and applied canvas on canvas



I like this artist’s work because we live in the flesh first and foremost. I don’t like artificial, constraining rules especially as they hinder artistic work.


Representation and figuration are more difficult and more freighted and more meaningful to me than abstract work. 

They have a long tradition which has shed light all around us.  It is difficult to measure up to this tradition and courageous are the artists who try.






Painting, 2010, water-based paint on canvas




Try without having to hide behind arbitrary definitions.

Try without allowing themselves to be seduced into abstractions which today seem more and more like an evacuation of our artistic traditions. 

The form without any recognizable meaning or substance.


Like the nihilism of the times which is gutting our traditions, one after another.







Painting, water-based paint and metallic enamel paint on canvas, 2011




A nihilism which owes something to those hard-edged and formless Abstract Expressionists who took the world out of the modernist tradition.

Joined by some of their many successors and imitators.





Painting, 2011, oil-based paint and oil-paint stick on canvas




I prefer this movement in the ‘real’ world.

Some joy, some falling down, some sitting down, some bowing down, some sadness, dancing, watching, grouping together, and some apprehension because that is the way it really is.





Painintg, 2011, water-based paint, acrylic paint and silver and gold enamel paint on canvas




And do we need to get to the way it really is?

In the primacy of our bodily incorporation?

With ourselves, and a thousand species blinking on an edge of an earth whose crumbling away under our feet we will regret? 


Or stay with the navel-gazing  abstraction of our very clever Sapiens minds which think that because we are the rule-making species, we will survive for ever?






No, 15, 2015, graphite, chalk, oil-based paint, and enamel paint on linen







Triptych, 2015, applied felt, chalk, alkyd paint, and mixed media on wood panel






No 3, 2016, oil-based paint, enamel paint, and spray enamel paint on wood panel







No. 7, 2017 (7.27.17), oil-based paint on panel






No. 5, 2018, oil-based paint on panel

















3 thoughts on “The Abstract Reaches of Human Representation

    1. Try, Chris, try!. You already have so much practice and eduation in the techniques required. I read your piece on the pencil pastels and, believe, me, I had to read it again because it is all so beyond the life of people like me who just go abot commenting on things!

      You are an artist and you can put your practice to what you want to portray. Just a matter of trying? Or no? Sarah

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