WOVEN FORMS AND POST MINIMAL SCULPTURE 1959 â€“ 1973
Alice Adams: Woven Forms, Eccentric Objects The American artist Alice Adams is best known for site-specific land-art installations and public commissions that she has been making since the 1980s for airports, university campuses, and transit systems in the United States. And yet in the late 1950s and early 1960s Adams was a successful and prolific fiber artist and sculptor in New York City. The critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard included Adams in her 1966 exhibition ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ at the Fischbach Gallery, New York, a show since considered a watershed moment in the history of advanced abstract sculpture. Unusually, Adams’ work resisted familiar classifications of either ‘craft’ or ‘fine art’, treading instead an eccentric route between the two. From 1950 to 1953 Adams studied for a BFA in painting at Columbia University in New York, during which time she took art history classes with the renowned art historian Meyer Shapiro. Adams recalls that the program was ‘strong on drawing’, a practice the artist has maintained throughout her career. After graduating, Adams received a French government grant to France, deciding, on the encouragement of a tutor, to study something ‘I could not possibly learn in the US’. This decision—‘partly brave, partly naïve’, the artist admits—involved Adams living in Aubusson, France, where she spent a year training in mural and tapestry making. The apprenticeship was transformative for Adams. At the end of her year in France she purchased a two-harness tapestry loom, which she shipped to New York and set up in 1954 in a lower Manhattan loft owned by her father’s business. From there, Adams began to produce woven works that by the late fifties she would have some significant success in both exhibiting and selling. Rather than abandon her drawing and painting practice, Adams elected to work from colored cartoons that she drew and painted by hand, before inserting them underneath a horizontal sheet of threads stretched between the two rollers, which she would then use as a guide from which to work. To this end, Adams considered her tapestry a form of ‘painting in fibers’, which suggests something of her reluctance to be pigeonholed as solely a painter, a weaver, or a sculptor. Rather, from the outset Adams considered herself an artist who worked across different media. Neither did she hold any truck with the ‘art’ versus ‘craft’ divide that had until then dominated discussions of weaving and textiles. By the 1960s boundaries between textiles and sculpture, between ‘high art’ and craft-based practices, were placed under increasing pressure, not only by Adams, but also by a number of her contemporaries for whom such static models for thinking about art no longer held sway. As Adams points out, in Aubusson weavers always work on the back of a tapestry, and not the front. The ‘smooth’ side becomes the front of the work only after the tapestry has been removed from the loom, at which point its finished surface is finally revealed. While on the one hand Adams is simply describing how tapestry is made, her attention to the oddity of working from the back of the piece to the front reveals an interest in the working process that matched similar concerns among her sculpture peers. For by the mid1960s an interest in process came to define the practice of a large number of Adams’ contemporaries, with whose work her own increasingly three-dimensional work would soon come to be aligned. During the late fifties and early sixties Adams worked with a range of different techniques such as knotting (see Tapestry with rope and knots; 1958), incorporating materials including silk, jute, ramie, and wool together into her tapestries and wall hangings, alongside found objects such as the floor mop of Tapestry with Mop (1958–59). At this time Adams decided to start making her working process explicit.1 As Adams has noted, ‘the hanging threads traditionally seen on the back, (now for me the front) began to suggest other techniques’, such as basket weave that ‘revealed the color of the warp (traditionally hidden) and surfaces and allowed me to introduce things like rope and dust mops into the woven piece.’ In 1963 Adams said ‘There has been an enlargement of our concept of the function
Gloria Finn, ‘Alice Adams: the fiber as pattern’, Craft Horizons, vol. 20, no.3, May-June 1963, pp. 16-20, p. 16. Alice Adams, ‘Artist’s Statement’ in Rose Slivka, ‘The New Tapestry’, Craft Horizons, vol. 23, no.2, March-April 1963, pp. 10-11, p. 11. 3 Adams, as cited in Lippard, Art in America, September 1979 p. 73 1
of the warp’, pointing out that ‘If it begins as a sheet of threads stretched on the loom, it need not retain this character in the finished work. Probably for the purposes of the artist, all rigid distinctions between warp and weft will disappear’.2 Commenting on this shift, Lippard later noted that the decision stemmed from Adams’ recognition that in traditional tapestry ‘fascinating things’ happen on the reverse and are not seen in the finished piece together.3 By 1960 Adams was teaching regularly, as well as contributing reviews and articles to the magazine Craft Horizons, which over the course of the early 1960s would publish a number of significant reviews and essays on her increasingly idiosyncratic works. A number of Adams’ works from this period, such as Yankee Doodle and Major General were included in the group exhibition ‘Woven Forms’ at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1963, alongside work by other so-called fiber artists Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, Dorian Zachai, and Claire Zeisler. She also had a successful solo show at the J. Blumenfeld Gallery in New York. The same year, at the height of her success, Adams made the decision to move away from the loom to work instead in fully three-dimensions. Tellingly, Adams called these new works ‘structures’. They looked back to her earlier woven forms, but they also looked forward, to the freestanding objects she began to make around 1964. These were constructed from materials that Adams culled from the approximately twenty block radius around Canal Street, then home to numerous hardware and supply stores that artists would scour for materials and readymade objects to incorporate into assemblages and sculptures. Of course, in describing the new works as ‘structures’ not sculptures, Adams was signaling her commitment to the three-dimensional work then being made by a number of her peers, who were also interested in working with unfamiliar materials, although Adams recalls the ‘peripheral position’ that she occupied at that time as a weaver, struggling for acceptance as a serious artist. From the outset, Adams’ interests were never just in the surface effects but rather the structural integrity of her forms. While at first this was manifest in her fascination with the ‘back’ of her woven pieces, Adams’ focus quickly expanded into a desire that her work reveal its structure and working process in line with her minimalist and process-oriented colleagues. According to the art critic Barbara Kafka, one of the ‘major tenets’ of Adams’ practice was that ‘the work should reflect its structure and that in some organic way it should demonstrate its growth’.4 We see this clearly in Threaded Drain Plate, Creature, and Sheath (1964), in which Adams reveals her preoccupation with ‘the strength of the flexible rather than rigid construction’.5 By this time Adams was beginning to incorporate new and unusual materials into her work, such as telephone wire and steel cable. Adams also began to move away from traditional techniques towards more utilitarian processes, such as the knots used by sailors on ships, exploiting her proximity to marine supply stores where she could source various types and thicknesses of rope and twine. Tarred Rope from 1964 was a floor-based object made from two gauges of tarred, sisal rope that Adams looped over a core of coated telephone wire. When Hollis Frampton photographed the work for Adams, he shot it up close and in raking light as if to dramatize the appearance of the soft, woven form. Using a combination of malleable fibers and hard industrial metals Adams incorporated familiar techniques of weaving, threading, and crochet in radically new contexts. On another occasion Adams stumbled upon a big coil of weathered, steel cable that had been discarded on the street. Adams dragged the metal back to her empty storefront on East 92nd street, where she began to make largescale constructions.6 Other materials that Adams lit upon at this time included aluminum wire and chain link fencing, from which she made Big Aluminum 1 (1966), an irregular large tube of chain-link fencing partially enclosed a tapering smaller shape woven from aluminum wire.” Measuring just over twelve feet in length and, at its widest, three feet, the structure was suspended at two points from the ceiling. Big Aluminum 1 was including in Lucy Lippard’s ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ exhibition alongside recent sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Gary Kuehn, Bruce Nauman, Don Potts, Keith Sonnier, and Frank Lincoln Viner. It hung
Gloria Kafka, ‘The Woven Structures of Alice Adams’, Craft Horizons, vol. 28, no. 2, 1967, pp. 14-17, p. 16. Kafka, ‘The Woven Structures of Alice Adams’, Craft Horizons, p. 16. 6 Prior to then Adams lived in a loft on West 24th Street between 1961 and 1965. Other tenants at that time included the artist Lee Lozano. 4 5
above two smaller, squat objects that sat directly on the floor, Rope and Cable Structure and the bright red Fluorescent Structure, both from 1964, the former of which measured around thirty inches in diameter and was made from rusted steel cable and tarred rope. For Lippard, the artists in ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ were united by the surprising range of materials they employed, as well as a shared commitment to radically rethinking sculpture. Along with Adams’ use of telephone wire, aluminum fencing, rope, and string, the other artists in the exhibition brought equally eccentric materials into their sculptural repertoires, ranging from fiberglass, plywood, and latex, to plastic, plaster, and fur. The works Lippard selected for inclusion reflected on the prevailing geometric conformity of contemporary abstract minimalist sculpture in ways that were, by turns, funny, phallic, abstract, erotic, and surprising in material, form, and range. Interestingly, in her essay, Lippard afforded Adams’ work particular attention. She described the artist’s work as comprising ‘gawky, semi-architectural armatures of chicken wire, industrial cable, and link fencing’, alongside the floor-based ‘ropy, rough tangles of fiber and painted cable’, which Lippard described as evocative of ‘unnamed creatures’.7 There was something unmistakably ‘animate’ about Adams’ woven forms that were, for Lippard, ‘erotic and often humorous’ in their abstract appeal to the body.8 This was a tactic also employed by Bourgeois’s squashed latex sculpture, and the soft, plastic works by Sonnier that rhythmically inflated and deflated via a hidden electric pump. As Lippard put it, by daring to introduce humor and eroticism into the ‘structural idiom’, these artists were pushing advanced art ‘where angels fear to tread’.9 Rubber Bathmat (1965), a drawing by Adams from the previous year, suggests something of a literal realization of Lippard’s claim. It contains a close-up pencil study of the thick loops of a rubber bathmat, offering a witty combination of an abstract, serially repeated pattern, and an ordinary, everyday, and deliciously tactile object. In 1968 Adams returned to the earlier aluminum sculptures and recycled them to new ends, as if they were only ever temporary forms on the way to becoming something else. Fluorescent Structure was one of those repurposed objects, which Adams entwined with the smaller of the two aluminum tubes comprising Big Construction 1, so that together they became one self-supporting structure, intimately entangled into a new form titled 22 Tangle (1968). It was a technique the artist used on other occasions, as with Stilt Structure (1968), that similarly involved Adams weaving and braiding together two discrete objects. In 1967 Adams made Knitted Structure, an outdoor construction made from sisal twine in collaboration with her students in Los Angeles that employed a spool knitting technique, spanning the divide, literally, between forms of weaving, sculpture, and architecture.10 Such works point to Adams’ interest in architectural structures that increasingly come to dominate her practice from around 1968. Again, her immediate environment provided her with source material, as she sought to marry the abstract and the everyday in works such as Urban Renewal I and Urban Renewal 2 (both 1967), two ‘monochrome’ pieces made by pressing slabs of wet, white plaster through a square sheet of wire, before smoothing them off into roughly flat patches as though half-finished sections of an interior wall. A conflation of sculpture and architecture was apparent elsewhere too, as forms were propped against corners, leaned against walls, and suspended from ceilings. Made from plaster and wire mesh, expanding foam, and exposed wooden struts and beams, works such as Hard and Soft Corner (1970) and Corner Piece (1967) resembled less finished buildings than architectural remnants. Caught somewhere between remaindered works of salvage and first-step building blocks toward making something new and as yet unrealized, Adams’ architectural pieces serve to both articulate and disarticulate the spaces they inhabit. These works evoke questions of memory as much as form, the personal as well as the structural.11 In Elissa Auther’s 2010 book String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, Auther pointed out that Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, Art International vo. 10, no. 9, November 20, 1966, pp. 28, 34-40, reprinted in Lucy R. Lippard, Changing: Essays in Art Criticism (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1971), pp. 98-111, p.110. 8 Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, p.110. 9 Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, p.110. 10 It was installed in an outdoor courtyard, and a short stop-motion film documenting the process was made by Bill Gordy. 11 Lucy R. Lippard, ‘The Abstract Realism of Alice Adams’, Art in America, vol.67 no. 5, pp. 72-75. 12 Elisse Auther, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). 7
while Adams was engaged with exactly the same formal questions as those raised by contemporary sculptors, she has remained largely at the margins of fine art.12 Auther paired Adams’ rope and steel cable Construction from 1966 with Alan Saret’s rope and wire piece Untitled from 1968, to argue that despite the fact that Adams tends to be cast as ‘craftsperson’ versus Saret’s designation as an avant-garde fine artist, they in fact share significant formal and material ground. Each, Auther points out, was concerned with working in new materials, to produce forms that developed and grew organically, with the final shape determined as much by the process of making as the materials themselves, which both Adams and Saret manipulate and allow to fall into place. Constantine and Larsen also reproduced Construction in their important 1972 book Beyond Craft, which also sought to complicate the divide between ‘art’ and ‘craft’.13 Of course, the fact that Adams was a woman made it doubly hard in the 1960s for her work to be taken as seriously as her male counterparts—a problem familiar to many artists working at the time, but particularly so for those coming from a textile and fiber-based background which was traditionally coded as ‘feminine’. Of course, by the 1970s fiber art would be taken up in earnest by a number of artists associated with the women’s movement, for whom an engagement with questions of craft, homemaking and working with fabric took on explicitly political overtones.14 By then, Adams had moved on to her large-scale architectural installations, itself a practice typically considered ‘masculine’ due to its engagement with space, scale, and durable materials. But Adams has always, rightly, resisted such easy, problematic groupings and labels in her work. She lets the materials and form— the structure—of her work speak for itself, to accrue its own meanings and force in space but also over time. Adams’ is interested rather in the complication of materials and formal structures, as works are turned inside out and back to front. Looking back, now, perhaps one thread might be considered to weave through and bind Adams’ practice together. But such a neat pigeonholing is neither the point nor the most interesting thing one might say about her various engagements with wood, rope, string, wire, wood, foam and so on. ‘I try to be an inventive weaver’, Adams said in 1963.15 And it was this inventiveness that would go on to be a hallmark of the artist’s career, even while her materials, scale and forms changed—at times dramatically. One of the greatest achievements of Adams’ work during this period was the extent to which it made visible on its working surface—both front and back—the working and thinking process of the artist. We might to this end consider Adams’ career to date less a definitive statement, than a provocative question about what contemporary sculpture is, and could be. - Jo Applin
Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larson, Beyond Craft: Art Fabric (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1972). Constantine and Larsen also included work by Adams in their 1969 exhibition ‘Wall Hangings’ at the Museum of Modern Art (albeit a show that was criticized by Louise Bourgeois in a review published in Craft Horizons, where Bourgeois dismissed the works on show as mere ‘decoration’). Louise Bourgeois, ‘Fabric of Construction’, Craft Horizons, vol. 29, no. 2, March-April 1969, pp. 3-35. 14 On this see Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Making Something from Nothing (Towards Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”), Heresies, no. 4 (Winter 1974), reprinted in The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New Press), pp. 128-138. For an important reassessment of the art/craft divide, see also Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017). 15 Alice Adams, as cited in Finn, ‘Alice Adams: the fiber as pattern’, Craft Horizons, p.17 13
Tapestry with Mop, 1959 18 x 10" Private Collection, Switzerland
Small Striped Figure, 1962 Wool and linen, 10 x 8"
Mountain Pass, 1964 Wool and linen on blue linen warp, 32 x 30"
Henry's Pink Circle, 1962 Wool, linen and silk on black cotton warp, 9 x 6"
The Alpes, 1964 Wool, linen, ramie on tan cotton warp, 37 x 66" 8
Wheatfield, 1959 Wool, jute, cotton on brown linen warp, 50 x 27" Private Collection, Los Angeles 9
Creature, 1964 Tan linen over blue telephone wire, 12 x 2 3/4" Private Collection, Los Angeles
Sheath, 1964 Cotton cord on cotton rope, 5 x 4" Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection
Blue Plunge, 1966 Felt marker on paper, 13 x 11"
Flexible Pile Structure, 1966 Telephone wire, 12 x 6 x 7" Private Collection, New York
Double Structure Studies, 1965 Felt pen on graph paper, 10 1/2 x 7" each, two drawings Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection 12
Three Studies, Pile Structure, 1965 Graphite on drawiang paper, 12 x 18"
Rubber Bathmat with Spaced Holes, White Macaroni Tubing, 1965 Graphite on paper, 12 x 18" 13
Pleated Sculpture, 1969 Latex over plastic mesh screening, 14 x 16"
Expanded Cylinder, 1969 Latex cloth, foam rubber, 10" in diameter by 36"
Frame with No Corners, 1965 Aluminum beams with metal BX cable, 20 3/4 x 20 3/4 x 3"
Funnel, 1966 Felt marker on graph paper, 20 x 16" Private Collection, NYC
Distorted Grid, 1967 Felt marker on graph paper, 28 x 22" Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection
Threaded Drain Plate, 1964 Steel Cable thru perforated drain plate, 13 1/2 x 10 x 10"
22 Tangle, 1968-69 Rusted steel cable, fluorescent paint, steel chain link fence 6' x 24" in diameter
Fluorescent Structure, 1965 Rusted steel cable, fluorescent paint, 28 x 30 x 24"
Red Silastic Corner with Rope, 1969 Cast red silastic with tarred rope, 14 x 5 1/2"
Structure, 1964 Steel cable and tarred rope, size, unknown
Plastic Grid, Telephone Wires, 1966 Plastic and telephone wire, 8 x 15" 21
Alice Adams: Sculpture and Urban Renewal, 1960–1970 In 1979, Lucy Lippard observed that Alice Adams had already lived two artistic lives: first as a tapestry maker, and then in pursuit of “architectural sculpture,” her distinctive practice that emerged in the later 1960s in dialogue with minimal and post-minimal art.1 By Lippard’s logic, Adams would embark on a third “life” in the 1980s, that of public artist fulfilling large-scale commissions in parks, plazas, and universities. Adams’s artistic “lives” are distinct, but represent a common set of concerns. For over fifty years she has explored the relationship of the art object to architecture and environment, understanding the role of her art as creating a specific sense of place. As a tapestry maker, she wrote of her interest in working with architects and pushing for the organic integration of the decorative arts into architectural design. The sculptures she produced between the mid 1960s to the early 1970s home in on the ongoing cycle of building and demolition in New York City, where Adams was born in 1930 and has lived and worked throughout her career. Adams’s works from this period are modest monuments to the transitory walls that shelter lives, communities, and art, perpetually built up and torn down in the life of the city. Adams studied painting at Columbia University with Peppino Mangravite and John Heliker, whose landscapes and sense of space were informed by Cézanne and cubism. Her coursework included classes in modern art with Meyer Schapiro. Like other painters pushed to critically examine the space of painting through modernism (the sculptor Donald Judd, who like Adams graduated from Columbia in 1953, comes to mind), Adams would eventually move into three dimensions. But first, after receiving a BFA in painting from Columbia she studied tapestry design and weaving in Aubusson, France on a French Government Fellowship. Adams was encouraged by her Columbia faculty to pursue a tradition she could not learn in New York (and not coincidentally, in the United States weaving was a female-dominated practice, unlike painting where few women were well established at the time). The experience was formative. Adams continued to both weave and paint into the 1960s, composing modernist landscapes and abstractions, understanding each medium in relation to the other. A 1960 feature on Adams in Craft Horizons described her as a “weaver-painter,” and Adams understood her work in both media as sharing a common source. Sometimes a painting was used as a cartoon, placed beneath the tapestry on the loom and interpreted in the weaving. “The form and space which concern me in tapestry and painting,” Adams explained, “are related to my interest in landscape—the shape of the surface of the land and of growing objects.”2 Attention to the surrounding topography would inform Adams’s practice in a variety of ways throughout her career. In 1960 she also expressed the potential of integrating tapestry within the total design of a building: fiber was a warm counterpoint to glass and stone, and architects and artists could collaborate to conceive woven compositions as part of a complete environment. Indeed, tapestries had historically functioned as interior walls insulating drafty castles, in addition to offering a decorative or narrative program. Adams’s early interest in the form and space of landscape, as well as understanding the potential of her tapestries as as integral components of architecture, prefigure the importance of architectural space and materials for her practice by the mid 1960s. In New York, Adams experimented with weaving. “I began to let the warp show in my tapestries and ventured into shaped weavings,” she recalls.3 Adams began using stiff raw sisal that gave her weavings a more substantial physicality and texture. Two of her weavings, Major General and Yankee Doodle, were included in the groundbreaking 1963 exhibition Woven Forms at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. These works, their titles wryly summoning a jingoistic patriotism in reaction to the Cuban missile crisis, were three dimensional, slit and folded “constructions,” woven of variegated, coarsely textured fibers. Fibers took on a stiff, structural presence, and form became three dimensional, signaling an important transformation in Adams’s approach around 1964 and 1965. She recalls her work for Woven Forms as a radical break that prompted her to use a range of flexible materials off the loom, including crocheting and basket weaving tarred twine and rope. In 1965, she moved to a new apartment on East 92nd Street, and later that year created a studio in a former laundry
Lucy Lippard, “The Abstract Realism of Alice Adams,” Art in America vol. 67 no. 5 (September, 1979) 73. Gloria Finn, “Alice Adams: The Fiber as Pattern,” Craft Horizons 20 (May/June 1960) 16-17. 3 Alice Adams, unpublished autobiographical reflection provided to the author in April, 2018. 1
storefront across the street. Her interest in flexible materials extended to chicken wire, chain link fencing, and steel cable; when she moved to 92nd Street, “I put my loom in storage at my parents’ house and never used it again. I began to make rusted steel cable constructions using rolls of cable thrown out during a renovation by the 92nd Street YMHA up the street from the studio.”4 These cable works were roughly woven and looped into organic structures with walls and voids that suggest soft knitted forms. These flexible, machined materials also became the source of drawings. Funnel (1966) and Distorted Grid (1967) depict layers of chicken wire on graph paper. Funnel is highly structured and controlled, while Distorted Grid introduces uncertainty, the lines tentative and wavering, hexagonal units stretched and elongated. The relationship of Adams’s work to architecture became direct, both in her use of materials and in her development of architectonic structures. Adams’s shift to metal cable opened a world of new potential materials, and crucially, linked Adams’s work to a new content: the internal structures, networks, and substrates of walls and buildings, hidden from view except during construction and demolition. As a New Yorker raised during the heyday of Robert Moses, Adams had witnessed the relentless tearing down and rebuilding of the city. As a Manhattan resident in the 1950s and 1960s, she remembers the shock of entire blocks torn out and streets erased as massive projects transformed the borough. “I remember the ripping out of whole streets around Chambers when the World Trade Center was being built. Then…Penn Station fell to the slash and burn mentality. Often it made me feel physically injured,” she recently recalled.5 For Adams, the cable scavenged from the Y had a tangible connection to this cycle and introduced a new relevance for materials as artifacts of the city. Further, these found and repurposed construction materials gave a highly meaningful context for her acts of weaving and building of forms: the urban environment in the throes of “renewal” was a key referent, both abstract and explicit. Two reliefs, Urban Renewal I (1965) and Urban Renewal II (1966), reflect specifically on the city’s continual transformation using materials that Adams found on Canal Street (like many artists at the time, she trawled here for inspiration—“Canal Street was our art supply store”).6 In each case, a rectilinear piece of sheet metal is used as a support upon which a smaller rectilinear piece of wire lath is mounted, leaving sheet metal exposed at the perimeter. Plaster, white and matte, is spread over most of the lath in layers and textures that are left visible—thick and uneven accumulations, smoothed and perfected surfaces, striated areas where the teeth of the scraping tool remain visible, and regions where the plaster barely clings to its diamond armature, pushed through here and there to the verso of the lath. The work invites us to meditate on the most commonplace of surfaces—the plaster wall—that has become a strangely varied and ambivalent surface here. This is not a wall at all, but a painting made with plaster as pigment. These reliefs have a complex set of referents. They nod to Adams’s background in weaving, the interconnected lath diamonds as a kind of textile surface. They also nod to her identity as a painter, and painting more broadly—the monochrome in general (think of white paintings from Kazimir Malevich to Robert Rauschenberg) and Robert Ryman’s adherence to the character of white paint in particular. Adams was friends with Ryman and his partner Merrill Wagner, and as she told me, “there may be a nod to Bob Ryman here, although perhaps not so much in homage but in jest.”7 Adams’s constructions are productively critical, holding painting, weaving, and urban renewal at a distance to be analyzed and reconsidered. In her words, these works and the title Urban Renewal were “in some ways are noncommittal but in other ways have a bitter edge.”8 The phrase “urban renewal” was understood as a euphemism for brutal displacement after Jane Jacobs’s powerful critique of the destruction of communities in the name of redevelopment in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). The irony and loss associated with the term—the razing of historic neighborhoods to be redeveloped with banal, efficient, “modern” commercial architecture—is contained in the duality of Adams’s reliefs. “The shiny sheet metal is the renewal part of the work,” she remarked.9 Metal lath—a material that replaced wood lath in the building trade—signaled the efficiency of machined building prodAlice Adams, unpublished autobiographical reflection provided to the author in April, 2018. Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, April 23, 2018. 6 Ibid. 7 Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, May 26, 2018. 8 Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, April 23, 2018. 9 Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, May 26, 2018. 4 5
ucts. The plaster, hand-applied, stands in contrast to the machined metal surfaces. These dualities and layers—the play of old and new, machine and human hand, plaster wall and painting, found materials and craftsmanship—get at the stakes of art at this moment in New York. For instance, as Adams made these reliefs on E. 92nd Street in 1966, the landmark exhibition Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, curated by Kynaston McShine, opened at the Jewish Museum nearby, on 92nd Street at 5th Avenue. The exhibition famously marked the apex of an anti-subjective rhetoric of industry and technology in the New York art world as a new status for three-dimensional work was established in anxious opposition to traditions of sculpture and painting. The “Space Age” artist could now “conceive his work, and entrust its execution to a manufacturer whose precision and skill convey the standardized ‘impersonality’ that the artist may seek,” McShine wrote in the catalogue. This “impersonality” was, he added, a reaction “against the open welded sculpture of the fifties, with its emotionalism, improvisation, and emphatic marks of individual sensibility.”10 Artists such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt contributed machined, modular works to Primary Structures. The ideas at play were very much in opposition to ideas of craft and the artist’s hand; yet for Adams and other artists who exhibited in Lippard’s 1966 Eccentric Abstraction, striking a tension between handicraft and fabricated forms generated new meanings. The machined materials such as sheet metal and metal lath that Adams was using by the mid 1960s were in dialogue with the ethos of Primary Structures to a point, even as her work alluded to the surrounding architecture and urban environment rather than the “Space Age.” Walls and the space of a room became an ever more pressing concept for Adams. Cross Purposes (1967) dwells on the interplay of old (wood) and new (metal) lath and plaster with an intersection of plastered surfaces. Adams recalls trying to capture architectural space in an immersive way, and “fighting a battle between illusion and reality.”11 Wall and Floor (1967) was another breakthrough work. Rather than using lath and plaster toward an abstract construction, Adams wanted to use these materials as they were meant to be used, “to create a plaster wall surface.”12 She built a wall-like structure attached to squares of purchased vinyl flooring—a modular element that establishes scale (and, undoubtedly, is a send up of minimalism, particularly the modular floor pieces of Carl Andre). This is not an architectural artifact from a demolished building, as Gordon Matta-Clark would become known for exhibiting in the 1970s; rather, Wall and Floor is a deliberate construction, a partial environment that presents the juncture of wall and floor in isolation and reveals the normally hidden substrates of a wall. Adams’s “wall” has metal lath on one side, and wood lath on the other, representing new and old materials and techniques, while quite distinct from how an actual wall would be constructed. (As one reviewer noted in 1973, plaster and lath, Adams’s materials of choice, “are practically obsolete building materials in our time of wallboard and exposed brick.” )13 The work creates a new partial “room” or environment; yet by virtue of being sculpture rather than an architectural construction, it is an object to be preserved rather than destroyed. In 1967 and 1968, Adams created a series of “corners,” elongated sculptures incorporating a simple right angle, cast of polyester resin mixed with white paint. These reference the corners of rooms, though were not direct casts; rather, Adams incorporated metal corner pieces, “corner bead,” with sides of wire diamond lath used in constructing walls. The pieces in this series are rigid, propped diagonally against the wall, leaving the juncture of wall and floor (the subject of Wall and Floor) as a void. Other artists were propping works against the wall in the later 1960s—for instance, Eva Hesse’s Accretion (1968), or works by Richard Serra. This informal, non-art mode of display drew attention to the architectural support of wall and floor, and in Adams’s case, connected her objects back to the architectural context. She later created another series of “corners” using Silastic, a silicone rubber available in white or red, that are supple, often mounted on an existing room corner, doubling this corner and becoming part of the environment. Adams’s 92nd Street studio was destroyed in 1968, not by the wrecking ball of urban renewal but by a fire. In 1969 she relocated to the Bowery where she began to direct cast her studio walls. She would paint a portion of wall with
Kynaston McShine, Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1966) n.p. Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, April 23, 2018. 12 Alice Adams, email exchange with the author, May 25, 2018. 13 April Kingsley, “Alice Adams,” Artforum 11 (January, 1973) 89. 10 11
multiple layers of liquid latex mixed with white paint, peeling off a flexible fabric that reproduced the wall’s original surface. These “fabrics” were attached to 2x4 wood frameworks with spacing that referenced the familiar 16 inch spacing of wall studs. Her cast walls hint at the space from which they originated, retaining the imperfections of other walls, though only traces of these former spaces remain. Adams continued to build her own wall structures that exist in relationship to the architectural space. “The wall is a non-subject,” Adams explained in 1972. “When you come into a room you expect to see a wall. The way my works are put together is obvious, so you’re forced to compare them to the real walls…It’s a way of making sculpture.”14 With the move to the Bowery, her work grew in scale, and Adams gained new visibility in the art world as she became more integrated with artists working in minimalism and post-minimalism. Lippard coined the large structures that Adams was creating by the early 1970s “architectural sculpture.” Her contribution to the 1971 Whitney Annual was the environmental-scaled Leaning Wall (1970), sections of latex and lath mounted on supports, propped on the wall at a 45-degree angle. Adams’s walls expanded—Gordy’s Wall (1970) was 21 feet in width and 9 feet high, suggesting a temporary construction site as it leaned against the gallery wall. This piece, named after her husband Bill Gordy, also reflects his influence: Gordy’s background was in theatre and film; he had begun helping her construct the simple frameworks that held the wall casts, and later, would assist with more complicated “vault” sculpture and sculpture involving construction methods like joinery. Adams’s notion of a movable, temporary wall was aligned with the function of gallery space as a site for events, happenings, and performances. In 1970, Adams co-founded the influential co-op gallery 55 Mercer. It was a rough space, and she recalls that she could nail materials directly into the floor or wall allowing her work to interact more fully with the architecture. Lippard wrote vividly of seeing a solo exhibition of Adams’s work at 55 Mercer in 1970: A large 1970 piece, consisting of wall-surface casts on a wooden framework, leaned against the actual wall like a pun on dependence. In the same show, the cast of a vertical corner lay on the gallery floor; Corner Bead peeled off the wall near a door as though the room were shedding its skin; and a very beautiful wall piece moved in a ragged wood and latex line across 21 feet of wall, over a rectangular band of latex and white paint just barely distinguished from the plastered wall beneath, in a subtle transition from relief to painting and support.15 The “beautiful wall piece” Lippard describes was ephemeral, made for the exhibition, and it was a formative work for Adams entitled Mercer Wall (1970). It involved nailing wood lath—the wall’s substrate—directly onto the surface, as well as the nuanced effect of painting with latex and white pigment on a white wall. By 1970, Adams’s work had become one with the wall and the architectural surrounds; the wall itself was the support. Mercer Wall likely challenged the perceptual experience of the viewer seeking to distinguish between white paint, plaster, and semi-transparent latex. Artists such as LeWitt and Ryman were likewise executing subtle, temporary transformations of the wall in exhibitions such as the Jewish Museum’s Using Walls (1970). When in conversation with Adams I referred to Mercer Wall as an “installation,” she corrected me: it was not installation art, but “work that created an environment or place.”16 This distinction may seem pedantic, but it is not. Reflecting and responding to place is at the heart of Adams’s practice, from tapestry to public projects. Whether cast impressions of walls lost to urban renewal (or simply renovation), or temporary walls that act as sets for some duration of human activity, Adams’s work cultivates and captures a sense of space in time, freezing a moment in the life of the city, in resistance to renewal. - Kirsten Swenson
Lippard, 74. Ibid. 16 Alice Adams, telephone conversation with the author, May 14, 2018. 14 15
Urban Renewal 1, c. 1965 Stainless steel sheet, wire lath, plaster, 18 x 14" Private Collection NYC
Urban Renewal ll, 1966 Stainless steel sheet, wire lath, plaster, 17 X 15" Private Collection, Massachusetts
Cross Purposes 1, 1967 Wood 2 x 4's, wood lath, plaster, 17 x 22 x 22" Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection
Corners, 1969 Wire lath, polyester resin and white paint, 49 x 2 x 2" each corner
8 Foot Corner, 1967 Poured polyester resin and paint over metal corner bead, 8' x 4 1/2 x 3" Private Collection, Massachusetts
Rope and Silastic Corner, 1969â€“70 Cotton rope and silastic, 8' x 4 x 4"
Short Silastic Corner, 1970 White silastic over metal corner, 48 x 1 x 1"
Corner, 1969 Wire lath, polyester resin and white paint, 49 x 2 x 2"
Wall and Floor, 1967 Wood 2 x 4's, wood lath, plaster and vinyl tile, 30 x 48 x 23"
Corner Piece, 1966 Polyester resin, corner bead, 5'6" x 5 x 4" E. 92nd Street Studio Collection Johnson Museum, Ithaca NY
Exhibition Photo, 1970 55 Mercer Street, NYC
Hanging Corner, 1967 Foam rubber, latex with white paint, 120 x 24 x 12" E. 92nd Street Studio
Wooden Column, 1973 Wooden lath and 2 x 4's 72 x 10 1/2 x 13 3/4"
Publication ÂŠ 2018 David Hall Fine Art, LLC Designed by Roxby Design, Arlington MA Printed by Puritan Capital, Hollis NH All rights reserved. No part of this publication my be reprinted or reproduced in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means now or known hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording or in any information retrieval system without prior written permission from the copyright holder. ISBN-13: 978-0-578-40262-8 Photography: All Photography by Will Howcroft Photography, Boston unless noted. P. 6: William Gordy P. 19, 21: Robert Mates, New York P. 36 bottom image: William Gordy P. 36 top image: Shunk and Kender P. 37: Shunk and Kender
Threaded Drain Plate, 1964
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