On the Square, 2007
oil, acrylic, isobutyl methacrylate with graphite and shell on paper on wood
7-1/2 x 7-1/2 inches
The Zabriskie Gallery has chosen to mark its fiftieth anniversary with a retrospective exhibition of an artist it has shown since its inception, Pat Adams. A half-century is represented in this selection of Adams’ paintings, all of which had their first showing at the gallery between 1954 and the present. The occasion offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on a fruitful relationship between artist and dealer (gallerist seems to be the preferred word these days), that has enabled Adams to concentrate on her work in her Bennington Vermont studio, confident that every two years the paintings would emerge into the world under the aegis of Virginia Zabriskie. At the same time it provides a welcome overview of five decades of work represented by the several dozen small works in the exhibition. “Small” may describe the dimensions, but no painting by Pat Adams is ever really small—the more one looks at them, the more they expand inwardly. Seeing the paintings sequentially leads to the realization that this body of work is bound by an inner consistency even as it grows in complexity and richness. One can observe the artist picking up on something that appeared in a painting years earlier and taking it to a new level, replaying it in a different key, so to speak, with multiple variations.
What is the fundamental leitmotif that runs through Adams’ work from the outset like a stream continually widened and refreshed by entering tributaries? To answer the question obliquely one might run through the sources she mentions as inspiration. These include the lines carved in the stone slabs of a passage grave on the island of Gavrinis, carvings in the prehistoric temples of Malta, Persian miniatures, the cloisonné in Byzantine enamels, the interlacing in the Lindesfarne Gospels, and the multitudinous stupas of Burma, as well as natural phenomena from shells to galaxies. Her paintings become the manifestation of her underlying conviction that the eye arranges visual phenomena into fundamental shapes and patterns. Hence out of an amorphous particulate mass or some form of primordial matter emerge oscillating circles, squares, and sharp-focus lines executing reverse curves and double loops across a surface. For Adams these are events embracing “primary form deep-set with human reference. Form that proffers no meaning, yet ceaselessly, inexhaustibly responds to an elusive prior necessity.”
Kandinsky called it “inner necessity;” some call it “presence;” Adams calls it a “condition of is-ness.” In each case the implication is that the work of art has a unique core that confronts the viewer. Rather than directing the mind to scan for a link with a subject from the visually perceived world, an Adams work asks that we give our exclusive attention to what is before our eyes, so that we focus in on the painting not on the search for outside references. Instead of being assigned a slot in the card file of an existing system, the painting asks that we give it the scrutiny one might give to something very small like an anthill with its dense concentration of activity, or to something vast like the myriad infinitesimal dots that mark out the expanses of the night sky. Refrain, the painting tells us, from searching for equivalents, resemblances, meanings. Watch, instead, what happens as a wire-thin line makes an incursion into an amorphous field, or when a jolt of bright color moves in a parabolic trajectory across a mottled, softly brushed ground of subdued tones.
The earliest painting shown here, Ribbons of Breath, 1954, is already non-referential in any specific sense. Its bright blue, yellow and red ovals, circles, and spirals gravitate toward each other and push apart, breathing, swelling, expanding, and contracting in their self-contained arena. At a time when free-wheeling gestural painting was at its height, Adams was painting with extreme care, close attention to detail, and a deliberateness that suggested a desire to assert the tangible actuality of what appears before the eye. This is a quality she would later reinforce by adding bits of mica, shell, and carborundum to her surfaces, but it is already present in Ribbons of Breath in the texture created by first crumpling the paper, then painting over its network of fine lines. Forty years later much the same sensation of momentum drives the intersecting circles of Arriving and sets them spinning in a space whose color is best described as golden although it is actually made up of orange, yellow, and red, with a spattering of sienna. Rims of minute, precisely placed beads of yellow paint define transparent circles, leaving it ambiguous as to whether they are simply particles held together by magnetic force or the defining edge of a celestial body. In Late, New, Again, Round, 1985, circles again jostle each other, forming within a darkness that suggests a pre-Genesis chaos, not really solids, but evidences of matter cohering across the void.
Although curves of varying kinds predominate, Adams doesn’t neglect the straight edge and right angle which often interject themselves into an otherwise amorphous situation. In Sweetness, 1990, they form a checkerboard grid of alternately opaque and translucent squares in piercing yellow-greens and sonorous browns. Some squares have tactile surfaces pocked by shell and mica chips while others seem to open inward revealing atmospheric depths. The painting offers a microcosm of the many divergent possibilities one might encounter traversing the cosmos of the mind’s eye, although it was actually inspired by a dense array of stupas encountered on a trip to Burma. Fourteen years later the checkerboard reappears in Be/Hold, 2004, this time without the vaporous interludes. The composition is, instead, intractable, locked in place, the squares defined by variations in texture and by shifts in the predominantly brown and red-brown tonality. It still has the power to draw the eye toward the minutiae of its variegated surfaces, but its immobility and compression contrast strongly with the dynamic that characterizes Adams’ work as a whole.
In the face of frequent comparisons of her paintings to scientific phenomena, especially by professionals in scientific fields, Adams makes it clear that her “quest is different from that of picturing phenomena.” Rather, she states, “of whatever else the artist’s effort may consist, it abounds in restless projective extension; innately it bounds toward the vision of an anticipatory not-as-yet.” In other words instead of being restricted to that which has already been defined, the artist reaches out to give form to the undefined. The sense of potential, of becoming, is generated by the dichotomies in her paintings, the tensions they establish, the unresolved questions they pose. To achieve her ends Adams transforms materials in a manner that evokes the medieval alchemist, experimenting with a mix of substances in an effort to turn dross into gold. In her hands paint becomes at times a sculptural material, layered, scumbled, troweled, or beaded, but it can also be manipulated into translucency or turbulence or an ethereal vista. Through her constantly inventive handling of paint and through the luminosity generated by the flecks of other materials embedded in her surfaces, she achieves something akin to alchemical transformation, that is, an effect of process, of on-going becoming that illuminates the condition in which we exist.
- Martica Sawin