Abstract Artists and Old Friends

Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam & William T Williams — all of them are key figures in the history of abstraction.

The presentation marks the first time the artists’ works will be shown together expressly as a reflection of their decades-long friendship.

The trio first had their work exhibited together at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1969. Now, Pace Gallery is showing some of the pieces they’ve made since.

The exhibition takes its title from Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clarke’s 1941 jazz standard, which riffs on the Greek word epistrophe, a formal structure in poetry that involves a repeated phrase or turn at the end of a line or stanza. Celebrating the “epistrophies” and affinities linking the oeuvres of these three artists, the presentation’s title also underscores the degree to which—across time, space, and media—Edwards, Gilliam, and Williams have made work bound not only by the context of their friendship, but by a sense of being shaped in the crucible of Black culture: in particular, the culture of jazz.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2018, acrylic on Cerex nylon, installation dimensions variable approximate installation dimensions (146″ x 124″ x 110″)

As Williams stated during a 2010 panel discussion at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “When my work, or Sam’s work, or Mel’s work is on the wall … it’s an invitation to see the work and share in a kind of human experience that we are producing … The specifics may be a narrative about African American culture, but the African American culture is part of a larger human experience. All the human possibilities are available to all of us …”

Melvin Edwards, Straighten Up to Contemplate, 2020, stainless steel, 133″ × 54″ × 36″ (337.8 cm × 137.2 cm × 91.4 cm)

Edwards, Gilliam, and Williams first became acquainted with one another in New York during the late 1960s, quickly striking up an artistic and intellectual exchange that continues to the present day. Despite differences in their trajectories then and now, the three artists have returned again and again to many of the same basic questions, as well as to each other as interlocutors, enacting a historical epistrophe that marks their common sense of art’s expansive possibilities.

William T. Williams, Trane Meets Jug, 1970-1971, acrylic on canvas, 108″ × 84″ (274.3 cm × 213.4 cm)

The show runs Apr 1 – 30, 2022 at 540 West 25th Street, New York.