Before Words, 1990. Steel, 107 x 94 x 120 in. Installation view of “Melvin Edwards: Brighter Days,” deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA, 2022. Photo: Julia Featheringill, © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Melvin Edwards: “You don’t play around with that power”

Recipient of the 2024 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award

Melvin Edwards began his now mythical “Lynch Fragments” in Los Angeles in 1963, when he was 26, and he has continued welding and forging them in New York, New Jersey, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Brazil, and elsewhere. There are now around 300, which may make them the most numerous as well as the most sustained sculpture series in the history of art. They project out from walls. Their dimensions and height contribute to their face-to-face immediacy. “They are meant to be seen at my eye level, with enough light for me to see them,” Edwards has said.1 The sculpture historian and critic Alex Potts described these works as “tense and compacted configurations that insistently confront one visually and refuse to settle into a state of stably posed sculptural form.”2 They honor artists, poets, and musicians. They are stamped by contemporary and historical events—and by an awareness that “it is possible to experience the totality of the universe within one’s own neighborhood.”3 “The ‘Lynch Fragments’ have changed my life,” Edwards has said. “They are the core to all the work. If anybody knows I lived, this is going to be why.”4

Curtain Calls, 2019. Barbed wire and chain, dimensions variable. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

The “Lynch Fragments” are “meant to be experienced on a personal level,” Edwards told Peggy O’Crowley.5 He wants viewers to respond to them vividly, in ways that reveal their multiplicity, and we do. Michael Kimmelman, in his New York Times review of Edwards’s 1993 retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art, felt their “intense and concentrated energy.”6 “These sculptures seem ready to detonate on contact,” Nancy Princenthal wrote in Art in America in 1997.7 To Jonathan Goodman, writing in artcritical in 2012, the “Lynch Fragments” were “eloquent but also brutalized shards of content [that] feel as though they are ready to explode.”8 In Hyperallergic in 2015, John Yau saw in them enormous personal and historical experience. “The early ‘Lynch Fragments’ have lost none of their power. In fact, they have gained in resonance over time because they point to the physical pain and constraints that humans have had to endure throughout history.”9

The poet Nancy Morejón, responding to the Neuberger retrospective, “found in them indescribable truth and beauty.” They brought her “closer to art, child of the most authentic diaspora.” Suggesting the power within Edwards’s hands, she wanted “to be able to touch the magic substance that formed these fragments,” a substance “concocted in the cargo decks of boats.”10 For Barry Schwabsky, it was the language of art that commanded attention. He saw no evidence of lynching except in the title of the series. “The associative connotations, though inexpungible, remain secondary,” he wrote in 2017 in The Nation. “Instead, the artist’s fascination with the formal experience of art seems paramount.” For Schwabsky, Edwards’s sculpture provided “sheer visual pleasure.”11

Some Bright Morning, 1963. Welded steel, 14.5 x 12 x 5.5 in. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Some Bright Morning, the first “Lynch Fragment,” takes its title from a warning to a Black family that if they didn’t behave correctly, some bright morning white people would come after them. This was in rural Florida, where the family knew how to take care of themselves, and, in Edwards’s words, “they retreated into the woods and didn’t lose.”12 While the lyrical yet foreboding title arouses mixed associations—like some of the objects that seem to be emerging from yet remaining partly buried within the sculptural mass, including a chain and blades—the sculpture is clear about the reality of deadly racial violence and resistance to it. With its sharp, protruding objects, the work looks armed, but its power seems more than physical or functional. It is of the present yet beyond it. Each form is an image, but so much more than what we see. Abstraction is “there and it’s not there,” Edwards’s close friend, the painter William T. Williams, said in a three-way conversation with Edwards and Sam Gilliam. “I can’t hold it. The impact it’s having on me, I can’t explain it. I can’t grab it.”13 Titles of other “Lynch Fragments,” like Nam, Iraq, and Echo Soweto, also refer to colonial destructiveness and uprisings against it. But how many of the great purposes of sculpture the “Lynch Fragments” seem to know! Warning, protecting, shocking, yes, but also commemorating, delighting, prophesizing, and presiding. With all its specificity, the series is encyclopedic in its referential range. Its speech is one of utterance.

For Egypt, 1980. Welded steel, 9.75 x 9.13 x 5.25 in. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Edwards’s titles provide a world of names. Of streets and cities and upheavals. Of people, from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, as well as the United States. Some titles include expressions in African languages—for example, Siyabonga, which, Edwards wrote, “means thanks in the Ndebele language of Zimbabwe and South Africa,” and Kwazisana, which means “after we met and got to know each other, we found we were related” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe.14 What the titles refer to will be known by some people and not others. Who is in the know, who holds power, who is the insider and who is the outsider, is not a given. The titles send many messages, including be open, be curious, discover. Don’t assume. Be careful.

While “Lynch Fragments” names, repeatedly, the fact of white supremacist terror against Black human beings, “fragment” implies incompleteness, not finality, and against the background, or within the frame, of this traumatic repetition, the sculptures keep going. The titles singling out Black creativity proliferate, and they, as well as other titles, hint at stories that viewers will extend once they learn what they are. Edwards’s sculptural inventiveness doesn’t stop either. His forms seem to be always beginning, with the ability to be different things at once and at every moment to be something more and other than what they may at first seem. The “Lynch Fragments” are freeform, free-flowing abstractions. “My art is always about improvisation,” Edwards said. “I’m improvisation. Today or tomorrow or next week…I am improvising.”15 He works on these sculptures directly, placing the steel forms and objects on a table, or occasionally on the floor, looking down over them, moving them around and changing angles and examining each one from different points of view. Materials suggest forms. Forms suggest ideas, which suggest other forms, and more ideas. Titles, even the most pointed ones, emerge at the end. For the artist, as for the viewer, each “Lynch Fragment” is a discovery.

Prepaid Logic, 1992. Welded steel, 11.5 x 10.63 x 8.25 in. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Continuity is a big idea in Edwards’s work. Speaking with curator and critic Brooke Kamin Rapaport about the aftereffects of lynching, Edwards made a point of destructive continuity: “It’s the thing people do with power all the time. You kill someone as an example. The person that you kill is out of his misery as soon as you kill him, but the people around who are living are the ones who suffer from that event.”16 Edwards has also made a point of constructive continuity: “I have tried to use and develop forms of power, vitality, and creative continuity.”17 The aftereffects of lynching do not and, in all likelihood, will never end. Destructive behavior will not end. For someone who has consistently expressed his determination, through art, to “improve” the world, it was imperative to make sculpture in which the force of creation would be greater than that of destruction. In one of his most remarkable statements, Edwards said: “The title of the series is, in a sense, a metaphor for the whole struggle and the point that I took it had a lot to do with the fact that the level of struggle necessary to make things just had to be up to the level that it was unjust. My effort in sculpture had to be as intense as injustice, in the reverse.”18 Edwards’s mission and will are clear here, as is his belief in art and, in particular, in sculpture.

Homage to the Poet Léon-Gontran Damas, 1978–81. Steel in 5 parts, dimensions variable. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Edwards’s primary material is steel, a material made for permanence that he makes pliable. “Steel is like cloth,” he said. “If you separate if from its original source, you can make anything out of it.”19 All of his sculptural work, whether mounted on walls or freestanding, or drawn in space with barbed wire, declares its structural authority. For Josephine Gear, an Edwards sculpture has an “almost biblical sense of durability…You can trust an Edwards sculpture.”20 If you look long enough at any Edwards sculptural configuration, sooner or later you are likely to be struck by how convincingly it holds together—and, in the case of his large-scale public sculpture, with what assurance it, like great statuary, stands. The ability of his sculptures to hold together physically without being susceptible to waning of energy is essential to their firmness, and this firmness is essential to their capacity for perseverance.

The objects in Edwards’s sculptures—chains, padlocks, cups, knives, scissors, barbed wire, gears, shovels, axes, machetes, spikes—are rooted in the everyday world. They suggest automobiles, railroads, scrapyards, stockyards, farms, and bars. And many histories—of struggle and oppression, but also of alliance and friendship, and talk and meals, as well as intellectual and physical labor. Many of these objects are creative as well as destructive. Chains, barbed wire, and axes suggest people building and making things with other people, and people doing things to other people. Some of the objects in the “Lynch Fragments” were found or bought, but others, which seem to have been welded into the sculptures as is, were made by the artist. A hammer in a “Lynch Fragment” could function as a hammer though Edwards may have made it himself. Here, too, be careful. Edwards’s process may include free association, and his work may encourage free association, but free association has limits. As much as the work seems to welcome go-with-your-gut subjectivity, it also tells viewers, “You may not know what you think you know.” Whatever you are looking at, don’t take its identity for granted.

Song of the Broken Chains, 2020. Stainless steel in 3 parts, approx. 96 x 216 x 144 in. overall. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Edwards’s signature form is the chain. It appears in his “Lynch Fragments” and throughout the rest of his work. Its first associations, particularly in a series with this title, particularly in the United States, are likely to be those of domination and imprisonment, but chains, Edwards has repeatedly said, are also images of linkage and connection. A chain, he said, is a stronger kind of rope. Chains are familiar to blacksmiths everywhere, going back centuries. Barry Schwabsky remembered a story that Edwards told him: “If your car is broken down in the Jersey woods, you’re happy to see them coming with the chains.”21 In the freestanding, nine-foot-tall Point of Memory (1983), an upright chain is as tall as the rectangular column to which it is attached; together, they seem to form a monument to watchful remembering. In 2020, Edwards fabricated the stainless steel Song of the Broken Chains for City Hall Park, a site known for its African American burial ground and the seat of the government of New York City. Three links from a giant chain seem to have been set free, each one given a space of its own. They make an odd and alluring family. The light on the stainless steel brings out an element of Edwards’s sculpture that has been part of it from the beginning: delight.

Ogun Again, 1988. Welded steel, 8.25 x 9.75 x 9.5 in. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Edwards spoke about chains with Catherine Craft, who curated his 2015 retrospective for the Nasher Sculpture Center. In 1969, a Yoruba man, after seeing Edwards’s barbed wire installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, “told a story about a particular Ogun Alagbede—that is, blacksmith. He said the Ogun of this village was very famous, and he told his people, when he dies and they bury him, they should put a chain into his grave with him, and bring part of it above ground. And if there’s ever a problem and the community needs assistance, they can rattle the chain, and Ogun will come and help. Well, Ogun is the patron of blacksmithing, and the patron of war. He’s Mars and Vulcan, in the European sense. And, of course, it was there a long time, and the kids know the story and they rattle the chain. Well, he came out, and he killed people in the village, left and right—and then, well, the lesson is, you don’t play around with that power.”22 Dry Days is one of several “Lynch Fragments” in which a chain hangs down, waiting, it seems, for someone to rattle it. And when they do…

How to write about Edwards’s magic? Geometry, duality, and strangeness are part of it, as well as formal experimentation and balance. And Edwards’s knowledge of the techniques and lore of smithery across space and time. Nancy Morejón’s words about a “magic substance…concocted in the cargo decks of boats” call attention to a particular energy and consistency within Edwards’s sculpture and suggest that this substance somehow holds within it the “essence” of historical experience, the depths of which can only be hinted at by what Tobias Wofford has referred to as “diasporic subjectivity.”23

Dancing in Nigeria, 1974–78. Painted welded steel, dimensions variable. Photo: © 2024 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Then there are Edwards’s hands. How to find language for the gift of being able to handle the social and psychic intensities that because of Edwards’s hands seem to be circulating within and around his steel? Has any artist felt more strongly the fascination of chains and barbed wire? Been more imaginative in transforming into poetic matter these signifiers of society’s demand for material structures through which binaries of inclusion and exclusion, protection and prohibition, entrapment and freedom, become so fixed as to be in effect law? In Edwards’s sculpture, these components of transgression are heightened. The realities of insider and outsider, welcomed and banned, the saved and the damned, seem to collide and explode. The resulting energy is dramatic. But these binaries are also loosened. What makes Edwards’s sculptural intensity so magnetic, and mysterious, is that within this collision, he imagines interval. Even his most compressed and demarcating sculptures offer an experience of opening. A space beyond naming emerges through which something enormous, beyond scale, seems ready to erupt—seems, in fact, to have already broken free and begun moving through the world. Handling the forbidden is an ancient sculptural gift, one that Ogun and Vulcan knew, and one that Brancusi, Giacometti, and David Smith helped bring into modern sculpture. It is also a gift of the great jazz musicians, who have provided a model of radical imagining that Edwards has aspired to in sculpture. Edwards holds in his hands what sculpture knows.

1 Cited in Lowery Sims, “Melvin Edwards: An Artist’s Life and Philosophy,” in Lucinda H. Gedeon, ed., Melvin Edwards Sculpture: A Thirty-Year Retrospective 1963–1993 (Neuberger Museum of Art, 1993), p. 11.
2 Alex Potts, “Melvin Edwards’ Sculptural Intensity,” in Catherine Craft, ed., Melvin Edwards: Five Decades (Nasher Sculpture Center, 2015), p. 47.
3 Cited in Sims, op. cit., p. 16.
4 Cited in Michael Brenson, “Lynch Fragments,” in Gedeon, op. cit., p. 26.
5 Peggy O’Crowley, “Putting Together ‘Fragments,’” News Tribune, May 7, 1989, E1.
6 Michael Kimmelman, “Art That Goes Beyond Social Content,” New York Times, May 23, 1989, H35.
7 Nancy Princenthal, “Melvin Edwards at CDS,” Art in America, January 1997, p. 96.
8 Jonathan Goodman, “Resistance of Steel: Melvin Edwards at Alexander Gray,” artcritical, December 1, 2012.
9 John Yau, “Will Some Bright Morning Ever Arrive,” Hyperallergic, September 6, 2015.
10 Nancy Morejón, “Melvin Edwards: The World of a Marvelous Artist,” Black Scholar 24, no. 1 (Winter 1994), p. 49.
11 Barry Schwabsky, “Do Something With It: The Ambiguous Sculptures of Melvin Edwards and Rachel Harrison,” The Nation, June 29, 2017.
12 Cited in Brenson, op. cit., p. 28.
13 Cited in Adam Bradley, “Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, and William T. Williams: Abstract Artists and Old Friends,” The New York Times Style Magazine, March 31, 2022.14 Melvin Edwards, “Statement,” in Melvin Edwards and Jayne Cortez, Fragments: Sculptures and Drawings from the ‘Lynch Fragments’ Series (Bola Press, 1994), n.p.
15 “Melvin Edwards in Conversation with Manthia Diawara and Lydie Diakhaté,” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art – 30, Spring 2012, p. 125.
16 Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “Melvin Edwards: Lynch Fragments,” Art in America, March 1993, p. 62.
17 Melvin Edwards, “Artist’s Statement,” in Melvin Edwards — Gregory Edwards (University Art Gallery, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1981), n.p.
18 Cited in Brenson, op. cit., p. 26.
19 Cited in Jessica Williams, “Sculptor Melvin Edwards Channels History and Social Impetus in Oklahoma Contemporary Exhibit,” Oklahoma Gazette, November 2, 2016.
20 Josephine Gear, “Melvin Edwards’s Freestanding Sculpture,” in Gedeon, op. cit., p. 88.
21 Schwabsky, op. cit.
22 Cited in Catherine Craft, “Conversations with Melvin Edwards,” in Craft, op. cit., p. 42.
23 Tobias Wofford, “Reconsidering Black Internationalism,” in Craft, op. cit., p. 63.