Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel

Out of the Paradigm an essay by Susan Nigra Snyder

 

 

 

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lice Adams: Public Projects is the first comprehensive survey of sculptor Alice Adams' public art work. Trained as a painter and weaver, Adams' career evolved from tapestry-making to sculpture. By the late 70s she was constructing large-scale, site-specific installations and developed her first permanent public project in 1984. Over the last sixteen years Adams has created major installations throughout the country including the cities of Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, St. Louis, Denver, San Antonio, and Newark, Delaware.

 

 

Alice Adams' public art projects are richly layered. Designed in relation to architecture, they are developed with a seminal connection to the site. Her forms, though related to minimalist sculpture, earthworks, or even architecture itself, are rarely without function and reference to a community—content and meaning are, in large part, drawn from the site and shaped by the people who will use it. This exhibition, focusing on Adams' major installations as well as projects in which she worked as a design team member, sheds light on her work in the field of public art. It includes the rarely seen preliminaries to the finished projects—models, sketches, notes, maquettes, full-scale mock-ups, material samples—and contextual photographs of the completed work.

Alice Adams graduated from Columbia University with a degree in painting and soon after went to Aubusson, France (L'Ecole Nationale d'Art Decoratif with a Fulbright Travel Grant and a French Government Fellowship), to study tapestry. She returned to New York and began exhibiting in the late 50s. Adams' early tapestries drew on her work as a painter and there was a strong interest in abstract, organic forms, and exploring the bounds of the media. Her weavings broke from the traditional rectilinear warp and weft structure.

Texture on the surface displayed a process usually concealed on the back of the tapestry. In a work from the early 1960s, Tapestry with Mop, Adams inserted a dust mop into the warp, revealing a sense of humor, a Dadaist irreverence, and a desire to subvert expectations. During this period her work appeared on the cover of Craft Horizons magazine and was included in exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Bertha Schaefer Gallery.

By the mid-sixties Adams' weavings were created off the loom. These organic constructions made from materials found on the street or at the hardware store—rope, steel cables, chain-link fencing—became independent of a wall support and were exhibited as discrete three-dimensional objects. In 1966 Adams' sculptural forms were shown in "Eccentric Abstraction" an exhibition curated by Lucy Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery which included Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Sonnier, Frank Viner, Gary Kuehn, and Bruce Nauman.

Architecture as a reference in Adams' work has been a long term interest. In 1967 using two-by-fours, wood lath, and plaster Adams began to create objects in which "walls" were the subject. A year later she cast wall surfaces in her studio in latex and attached these "fabrics" to stud-wall frameworks. Building construction provided a model for the use of materials and a source for methodology and scale. These works had a freshness and seemed to capture something in mid-process. Later sculpture incorporated arches, vaults, and columns.

By the late 70s the work had become more finished and in a sense, more permanent, with shaped and sanded surfaces and laminated woods. Adams' work from this period was included in surveys of contemporary sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1977 Adams' House, a temporary work constructed on the grounds of the Nassau County Museum, provided the logical progression. Joining the architectural elements of earlier work—two-by-four framing with detailed doors and windows—Adams' "wall" and "column" references became "house" references. More connected to the logic of memory than that of a blueprint, the structure was based on the childhood home her father had built. It was Adams' first outdoor, site-specific work and the project embodied many of the characteristics that would become part of her later public commissions. It drew on the familiar to create a space which would resonate for viewers on many levels—something that was not an abstraction but was as basic as a childhood home.

William Zimmer commenting on Adams' work in a 1981 exhibition at the Hal Bromm Gallery observed, "Doorways hint at the wider world and personal memories grow into collective memories about built places."1 In Adams' later public projects the subliminal references work in much the same way. The history and culture of the site or the interests of the people who will use it, provide a subject matter that becomes embedded in the work. The work, in many ways, becomes a metaphor for the community's sense of who they are or what they want to remember.

From 1977 through 1985 Adams created large-scale, site-specific works out of doors. In several projects around the time she was constructing Adams' HouseLeveling at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (1977), Three Structures on a Slope: Porch, Etage, Escalier at Queensboro Community College in New York City (1978), and Mound for Viewing Slope and Sky at Princeton University, in New Jersey (1980)—Adams further defined issues that would continue in her public work. All three installations contained abstracted architectural forms but once again expand the vocabulary. There was a response to the topography and terrain of the site, using the structure of the work to position the viewer. Still considering formal issues such as form, balance, space, and mass, Adams began to create installations which were developed in reaction to the site and were interactive. The viewer was a participant—walking around or climbing on—and allowed to "be in" rather than just "look at" the work. Scale too was architectural—the Princeton work, an earth and sod mound, was 12 feet by 90 feet by 40 feet. Like later projects there was also the use of sensual materials, often in a natural setting, and an attention to detail. Leveling, a work in which the shapes were derived from the conceptual measuring of the slope of the site, was built by carpenters from white oak using mortise and tenon joinery.

In 1978 Adams constructed Shorings, another large-scale, temporary installation for Artpark in Lewiston, New York. Part earthwork, part architecture, the work again alluded to the notion of a house. Excavated and built into a sloping hillside, the buttressed structure was then refilled with the dirt which had been removed. Precariously placed and tenuously holding its own against the weight of the dirt, the piece was dedicated to fellow tenants reluctantly involved in a rent strike. The work's tensions and pressures physically suggest a power struggle. In a 1979 article Lucy Lippard describes being attracted to Adams work for its "... uneasy combination of— or combat between-mortality and technology."2

The permanent public projects began in 1984 with Small Park with Arches at Toledo Botanical Garden. The structure, made from wood and stone, is a memorial to Toledo architect J. Noble Richards. This project was the first of many commissions and was followed in 1985 by Adams' work as a member of a design team on the Downtown Seattle Transit Project, a project that lasted for five years. It was Adams' first major "percent for art"3 project and provided a major transition to working in the public domain.

Throughout Adams' career, the exploration of new materials has been an important stimulus to the design process and it continued to be so in her public projects. The transition from weaving to sculpture had been marked by an exploration of industrial materials. The progression to architecturally-based installation coincided with the exploration of building materials. Public projects require permanence and this transition is also marked by the use of new materials.

On the Seattle project five artists worked with architects to influence the overall character of the stations which were part of a new transit system. Adams worked specifically on the design for two stations. For the Convention Place station Adams designed a plaza with glass block which is lighted from below and two large exuberant sculptural forms in steel and neon, one in reds and oranges, the other in blues and greens. Playing off the marquee of the Paramount Theater, an early movie palace and neighborhood landmark, (and inspired by a Cindy Lauper performance Adams had seen there) she developed a project which conveys the excitement and magic of city night life. Adams soon after took on another transit system design project, the St. Louis Metrolink (1985-90). As one of six artists working with architects and engineers, Adams dealt with design problems for the system ranging from the shape of station platforms, canopies, and electrical cabinets to signage.

Also included in the exhibition are the completed design materials developed in 1985 for Worker's Place, a project which was never built. Adams was one of two artists working in collaboration with landscape architects to design a park and promenade in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a mill city known for the "Bread and Roses" strike of 1912. Immigration and labor history provided themes for the project. Two-foot square etched copper passport seals would have provided a frieze to a pavilion, suggesting the country of origin for the population of this diverse community.

Closer to her studio in the Bronx Adams completed Glider Park (1990) in the Bathgate Industrial Park. Its two steel pavilions in a plaza partitioned from the street provide a place to sit or wait. The seating is based on an old-fashioned porch glider, a furniture design more often associated with the home than an industrial park. Once again its imagery resonates from childhood—familiar from New York and to the Caribbean. Designs in the screening overhead which also appear as cast shadows, were developed in response to the shapes of the Tim Rollins + KOS mural opposite the site.

In 1992 Adams completed her most comprehensive commission up to that point, The Roundabout, at the Bluemle Life Sciences Building at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The complex project is richly referenced in visual metaphors connecting the structures to the city of Philadelphia and to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home Monticello—where the paths and roads are referred to as "roundabouts." The project includes falls, cascading water, and pool suggesting the Schuylkill River in rich green granite with bluestone wall caps. The project also includes an earth mound. Reminiscent of the earlier Princeton work, this time it is a reminder of Jefferson's Monticello "little mountain" and like the earlier version, also provides a site for "viewing slope and sky." Seating, paths, lighting, and landscaping are also a part of Adams' design on this plaza nearly an acre in size. Adams mediated the city environment with formal gardens, an area of layered plantings known as the "thicket," and flowering trees. Twenty-five etched bronze plates depicting medicinal plants (such as belladonna, vinca, witch hazel, digitalis, and bloodroot) imbedded in the paving and pool, allude to the cancer research taking place at this medical school as well as Jefferson's study of plants. Some of the actual plants are also included in the landscaping. A podium and paving area in the shape of the "Great Lawn" of Monticello provides a gathering area. Another structure, based on the front steps of Philadelphia rowhouses, provides additional seating—its arch and door shapes repeat those seen earlier in works like Adams' House. Like many of Adams' projects lighting is a significant part of the work and the site takes on a wholly different character at night.

In 1993 Adams began another major project. Adams designed Beaded Circle Crossing, an expansive light sculpture based on Native American imagery, as part of the Denver International Airport Art Program, the country's largest percent project to date. Argon glass tubing in patterns suggesting Native American beadwork is carried over the concourse of the terminal on a large canopy of aluminum. Adams researched Cheyenne and Arapaho writing and imagery for the project. Aspects of the canopy itself suggest teepee (another house structure) and buffalo hide shapes. Jeff Huebner writing in The New Art Examiner has described the airport collection, which involved thirty-seven artists, as "an awesome combination of form, function, and fun."4

Adams worked on numerous smaller projects throughout this period. The River, a project in the common room of the Riverview Hospital for Children and Youth in Middletown, Connecticut, was completed in 1992. The work draws on the landscape outside the hospital to connect the elements of the installation. These components include a bench shaped like a boat frame, a stepped dock-like platform and an inverted birch bark canoe, mysteriously suspended overhead. The deck, which has a silhouette of a boat bow pieced into the wood, provides a spot for standing or sitting and defines a separate area within the room. In some ways it distantly echoes the platforms and railings of some of Adams' temporary pieces. Once again Adams has chosen rich materials—luan mahogany and bright finished maple and cherry. Working with boatbuilders, Adams created an installation which humanizes the stark, clinical environment for visitors and the children confined there.

Adams' project for the African Garden (1993) at P.S. 12 in Brooklyn (1993) again provided the opportunity to explore new materials and new sculptural forms. Adams' fabricated seating drew from traditional African stool and bench forms. Her design, which required a change in the original architectural plan for the site, also included plantings for this small organically-shaped garden area linking two playgrounds. Planting (1995) at the Long Island Railroad's Ronkonkoma Station also incorporates landscaping as an element. The design, an homage to the local tree farm industry, includes a curvilinear planting area with grids of trees across the site. Adams also designed planters which are shaped like root balls of trees in a nursery.

Healer's Spring (1997) at the University of Texas, San Antonio, a large water sculpture (eleven feet in diameter) in the rotunda of the Life Sciences building, is an allusion to local lore—the spring of a Mexican-American folk healer. Granite and limestone slabs refer to the aquifer which provides the water for this semi-desert region.

Adams is currently working on the design for two new projects and these models and drawings are also included in the exhibition. Scroll Circle at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware include semi-circular fountains, seating and plantings for a thoroughfare and gathering place for events and outdoor classes. Like many of Adams' projects, the fiber optics in the waterwall and site lighting will make the project dramatic at night. Glass and Stone Garden for the North Terminal at Hollywood Airport, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, will feature an abstracted boat frame sculpture and platforms with indigenous limestone with traces of fossilized sealife. The limestone, covered with slabs of three-quarter inch glass, will appear to be underwater.

Lehman College Art Gallery is pleased to present the work of an artist with such a varied and distinguished background. Adams has proved a bold experimenter throughout her career and as a public artist she continues to explore the possibilites of sculpture in an architectural context. Alice Adams: Public Projects is offered as part of the gallery's Bronx Celebrates, a series featuring the work of Bronx artists. Adams moved her home and studio to the Bronx in 1985 where she continues to develop public art projects.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by a grant from the Richard Florsheim Art Fund and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Exhibitions and education programs at the Lehman College Art Gallery are presented with support from Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency; National Endowment for the Humanities; The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and the Bronx City Council Delegation; The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Cultural Challenge Program; NYC Partnerships for Arts and Education through the Annenberg Challenge for Arts Education; New York State Council on the Arts; the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc.; J.P. Morgan & Co.; The Chase Manhattan Bank; The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation; Greentree Foundation; Heathcote Arts Foundation; Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc. and Friends of the Lehman College Art Gallery.

 

Susan Hoeltzel Director

1 William Zimmer, "Adams' Eaves," Soho News, April 15, 1981. 2 Lucy Lippard, "The Abstract Realism of Alice Adams," Art in America, September 1979, p.76 3 The first "percent for art" laws, setting aside a portion of capital funds for art, began to take shape in the late 1950s and by the early 1980s created new opportunities for many artists through national as well as state and local programs. (Philadelphia established the earliest municipal "percent for art" ordinance in 1959. Federal sponsorship General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program, 1963, and the National Endowment for the Arts' Works of Art in Public Places (later Art in Public Places), 1967, and New York City began its policy in the same era though it did not become an ordinance until 1982. ) The early commissions tended to be large-scale sculptures by major artists which were placed in plazas and lobbies. As "percent for art" projects became more wide spread, site-specific work, developed for a particular location and community, became a basic premise of the commissioning process. 4 Jeff Huebner, "Holding Pattern," The New Art Examiner, Vo. 22, Issue 10, Summer 1995, p.25.

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