Melvin Edwards (b.1937) is a pioneer in the history of contemporary African-American art and sculpture. Born in Houston, Texas, he began his artistic career at the University of Southern California, where he met and was mentored by Hungarian painter Francis de Erdely. In 1965 the Santa Barbara Museum of Art organized Edwards’ first solo exhibition, which launched his professional career. He moved to New York City in 1967, where shortly after his arrival, his work was exhibited at the then newly created Studio Museum, and in 1970 became the first African-American sculptor to have works presented in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.
Edwards’ work reflects his engagement with the history of race, labor, violence, as well as with themes of African Diaspora. Making welding his preferred medium, his compositions are studies in abstraction and minimalism. Edwards creates sculptures by welding metal objects such as tools, knives, hooks, and machine parts, to construct objects distinguished by formal simplicity and powerful materiality. He is best known for his sculptural series Lynch Fragments, which spans three periods: the early 1960s, when he responded to racial violence in the United States; the early 1970s, when his activism concerning the Vietnam War motivated him to return to the series; and from 1978 to the present, as he continues to explore a variety of themes. Edwards has felt deeply connected to Africa and the African Diaspora since the 1970s, when he and his late wife, poet Jayne Cortez, began visiting the continent. He taught metal-welding in several countries, establishing workshops and mentoring a younger generation of African welders.
Edwards has had a longstanding commitment to public art, working on projects for public housing and universities since the 1960s, including Homage to My Father and the Spirit (1969) at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; Holder of the Light (1985) at Lafayette Gardens, Jersey City, NJ; and Asafokra (1990) at the Utsukushi-Ga-Hara Open-Air Museum, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. His large-scale public sculptures exemplify his extraordinary range of aesthetic expression as well as his keen commitment to abstraction.
Melvin Edwards’ work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. In 1993, the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY, organized Melvin Edwards Sculpture: A Thirty-Year Retrospective 1963–1993, an exhibition documenting his artistic development. In 2015 the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, TX organized a second retrospective, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades, featuring work from the early 1960s to the present. This retrospective exhibition traveled to the Zimmerli Museum of Art, Rutgers University, NJ, and is currently on view at the Columbus Museum of Art, OH. His work has recently been included in exhibitions All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale, Italy (2015); Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2014); Blues for Smoke, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (2013) and at The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA (2012); Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, MoMA PS1, Queens, NY (2012); African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC (2012) and at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2011); and as a part of the Dak’art Biennial in 2010; among others. His work is included in the upcoming exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-1965, at Haus der Kunst, Munich (September 16, 2016–February 26, 2017); and a solo exhibition at Oklahoma Contemporary, OK (October 27, 2016–January 2017). Edwards’ work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art at Rollins College, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Winter Park, FL; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; among others. Edwards taught at Rutgers University from 1972 to 2002. In 2014, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston.