New YorkAlexandre Gallery
Pat Adams: Large Paintings
March 11 – April 22, 2023
To refer to Pat Adams as a grand and venerable presence in American painting is merely to state the obvious. Born in 1928, she has had, since 1954, show after show right up until today. She is a national treasure and ought to be regarded as such. But it is not her age, the number of her shows, or the many institutions that proudly display her art that matter. Our concern should be the quality of her work, her dedication, and her artistic genius. This show is a superb opportunity to focus on what makes her great.
Pat Adams’s practice could be called dialectical materialism. Unfortunately, that term was preempted by a defunct political party, but we may rescue two of its defining points to come to understand Adams’s work. The first is material and the second is conflict. When we look over the ingredients Adams uses in these eight paintings, produced between 1978 and 2008, we see things that make no sense: mica, eggshell, crayon, pastel, sand, and vermiculite all spread over canvas surfaces and held there by isobutyl methacrylate, “a colorless liquid with a flash point of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.” It sounds like an unholy and potentially dangerous mess, but these are the materials, the matrix, the given universe upon which Adams makes her mark.
The conflictive, dialectical process involved in the making of these works derives from an Existentialist attitude toward artistic creation. The materials Adams deploys onto a surface are her version of facticity, which is to say she replicates within the space of the canvas the universe, a state of affairs she creates but ultimately does not control. Then comes action, something instantly visible in Naming (1978). Over the surface of the cosmos she makes, she floats lines and patterns to imitate what transpires in Genesis, where the spirit of God floats above an “earth without form and void.” The speckled yellow line in Naming, whose title derives from Adam’s function in the Garden of Eden as namer of things, is Pat Adams’s way of combating the void by inscribing herself onto it. So, each painting here is a performance in which Adams confronts a meaningless chaos and imposes order onto it.
That action is then reenacted. First, there is the deliberate creation of the meaningless, then there is the imposition of meaning on that morass by instituting difference. All meaning derives from difference: silence versus sound, blank space versus marked space, all of which in the case of Pat Adams is an affirmation of self in the context of a brutal social and artistic milieu where female identity is all too often brushed aside or painted out of the picture.
The grand scale of Crossing (1990), a 66-by-210-inches rectangle, is exactly this. On a surface of shell, mica, bead, and sand, Adams has inscribed a series of circles—worlds, and worlds within worlds. Adams’s circles symbolize the unity she imposes on disorder, usurping the authority traditionally called the active or masculine principle. This magnificent painting with its flashes of brilliant red is a wordless manifesto, an affirmation of Adams’s perpetual struggle against the void.
Within the context of this show, Crossing must be juxtaposed with Ground (1989), another large-scale work. The conjoined circles Adams has imposed on her matrix of sand and vermiculite are either joining or separating, much like traditional representations of mitosis and meiosis, either the separation of identical daughter cells or the creation of a new, unique individual. Adams leaves it to the viewer to decide, but in fact there may be no need to decide because the generation of a new individual must begin with identical cells that eventually differentiate. The lesson here is clear: only through an act of will can creation take place.
Unforgetting (1994), among the more modestly sized paintings, is the most complex work in the show. We immediately notice a subordination: the center is dominated by a large circle, while the small, speckled green, four-sided shape is relegated to the lower left. The dominant circle is, again, the unity of creation, while the quadrilateral figure is a vestige of what is unstable or incomplete. It would be easy to let our gaze dissolve in Pat Adams’s flood of textures and colors and to lose sight (literally) of the self-affirming message each of these grand paintings entails.