Interview with Alice Adams
By Jonathan D. Lippincott
Alice Adams is an American artist known for her sculpture and site-specific land art of the 1960s and 1970s, and, since the mid-1980s, her public art projects in cities across the United States. I first encountered Adams’ work when I was curating one of the 80th anniversary exhibitions for the American Abstract Artists, in 2016. I was intrigued by her sculpture and installation work, and the great range of projects she had undertaken in her career. We spoke via FaceTime earlier this spring.
JDL: One of the things that really struck me about your work was the range of materials that you’ve use in the different projects over time. And how each group of works explores new building materials and new building processes.
AA: I think that inherent in your question is another: Did I start with a concept or did I start with a specific material. I think I always began with some underlying image or concept and somehow found what I needed to bring it to life. Sculptures I’ve made on my own have been assembled from separate units or elements, often basic building materials like wooden 2×4’s. They are constructed rather than cast or molded. I studied painting at Columbia University but took a sculpture class and cast a block of plaster and carved something. I still have the little sculpture I made. With the woven forms I developed in the 1960’s I had taken materials like chain link fence and wire lath and shaped them in ways that were different from how they were traditionally used. After that, I decided to try to use these materials for what they were supposed to be used for. Plaster is for a plaster wall, so I made constructions, like Wall and Floor (1967). I think this may have been a satire on minimal sculpture, perhaps a questioning
of Minimalism to begin with. It’s not really a wall, but it looks like a wall so it is recognized as something familiar. This was a way of drawing people in, to hold them somehow, where they might start asking questions and looking at other things that are going on. That aspect of these 1970’s sculptures has been carried into a lot of later work. In my public projects, I didn’t want people to stand back from the work but get into the middle of it and experience it as a place rather than as a thing.
In the late 60s I was also making the corner pieces [Corners (1969)] out of metal, polyester resin and/silastic resin.
Tell me about these . . .
To make the corner in a plaster wall, you buy a metal piece of material that fits over the corner and then plaster over that. That metal piece, called corner bead, was readily available at a lumberyard or at the hardware store. I bought a lot of my materials from the local lumberyard, which was sort of interesting to negotiate in those days when women customers were treated in this kind of desultory way, as if they didn’t know what they were looking for. It was a little tense I guess you would call it.
After that, I made another group of wall-based sculptures. I had read that to remove frescoes from ancient walls, they would paint a layer of latex or a material like it over them, and maybe add some kind of cloth, so the entire surface of the fresco could be removed. So I decided I would do that with a wall in my studio on the Bowery. I would paint a whole large section of wall with latex mixed with white latex paint, and sometimes added a piece of wood lath. I would paint one layer, it would set up and then I’d paint another layer, up to about eight coats. When I removed this fabric, I had the surface of this old wall, which showed whatever was on the wall, what people had written, any kinds of mark, so it was a way of reproducing a real wall. I would often hang these on a two by four framework, which was a way of framing out from the wall. The frameworks were based on 16” on center basic stud wall framing. [Photo Bowery Wall (1972) There was a piece like that in the Whitney Annual of 1971.
I kind of just started working with these materials and learned as I went along. After that I began building sculptures where structural frameworks were visible and apparent. My husband, Bill Gordy, who I had just met at that time, had a theater background and had built sets. He helped me (whether he wanted to or not!) (laughs) with sculpture like Column with Two Half Arches (1974).
That’s a really wonderful one, those tower columns . . .
Yes. that was in a show at 55 Mercer, a coop gallery I helped start in 1969 with Stephen Rosenthal, Gloria Greenberg, Martin Bressler, Christy Park, Merrill Wagner, Tom Parker, Stan Kaplan. We were joined two years later by Tom Doyle, Mary Miss, Janet Fish, Ivan Biro, Frank Lincoln Viner and others.
There’s another small piece [Segmented Section (1974)] in the Museum of Modern Art. It was in Ruth Vollmer’s collection that she left to the museum. Another like it belonged to Betty Parsons. I remember trading work with her. Both women were members of American Abstract Artists, that’s how I knew them.
I joined the American Abstract Artists when I was in my thirties, and I thought it would be good to support all these nice old people (laughs) which was rather condescending of me at the time. But I did meet people like Charmion von Weigand and Esphyr Slobodkina. Esphyr gave me one of her Caps for Sale books, when my daughter was born. That’s one thing about the American Abstract Artists, there have always been quite a few women members, and really good artists. Even among the founding members there were six women. Now about half of the group are women.
So how did you first join American Abstract Artists?
I knew the painter Henry Pearson and Leo Rabkin, the president, and he invited me to join. But I was still making tapestries then, so it was interesting that they would invite me. At that time I was kind of stuck in certain ways . . . there was a big wall between the craft world and the art world that I crossed over, or climbed over! (laughs) And I kind of left the one behind. What’s so funny is that in the last five years there’s all this weaving and cloth used by artists.
It is interesting how it changes.
I find it ironic, you know. I was in a show at the Whitney this past year. There I was with Anni Albers and Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney. My work [Sheath, 1964] was installed in a box-like space in the
wall with a glass front. It was kind of wonderful that they were treating it with such respect because to me it was this humble object. But it was great, I was glad it was there.
You had also asked about scale . . .
Yes, I’ve noticed that some artists tend to work within a specific range of size, whereas there have been incredible shifts in scale in your work over time, from the tapestries and some of the small sculptures, more intimate in scale, to the sculptures like those columns, the more architectural pieces, to the outdoor temporary installations to the permanent installations.
There’s scale like a quarter inch equals a foot and I was always interested in measurements. Then there’s the general overall scale of a project, in the studio as opposed to large projects outdoors. Also some projects were not possible at one time and possible at another. You know, what could I do by myself, as opposed to what could I do with other people or what they could do for me,
That’s true, as the projects get larger you have to collaborate with people.
Collaboration is not exactly what happens on a large project; I’ve worked on what they call a Design Team and there’s the possibility of collaboration, but a lot of times it’s more that you’re consulting with other people to gather information as to what you could do. To me collaboration is the work of a group of people, where there’s a concept that’s developed by the group. It’s not just a single artist, it’s everybody together, each person has some input. There’s this idea that only a single person can make a great work, for instance, where in fact that’s not really true. Or only a single person can make a work that has an emotional content. The large projects that I worked on weren’t collaborations exactly, but there were things that other people added to them. That’s an important aspect to me, that the people working on a project that I conceptualized aren’t just fitting stonework together or casting concrete, but that they feel some interest in the project or that it makes a challenge for them. In terms of the public art projects, the first line of the public are the workers, the brick layers or the builders, they are the first people who are in touch with it.
With the work I did on my own, say, in the studio, I did want to engage people and draw them in and maybe teach them something, and it was the same in the big projects. I wanted to try to give something to the people who used them. I’m more interested in the idea that you’re valued more for what you can give than for what you can get. That was one of the reasons that I worked on all those public projects. But what I wanted to go into was my interest in building things on a slope of some kind, one of the major concerns in a lot of my work. This interest started with the site sculpture.
So sloped terrain?
Yes, sculpture is typically thought of on a flat surface, on a floor or on a pedestal. Even if it’s quite large it remains a kind of object. I built my first site work, Leveling (1977–1986), on a slope at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA. Bill made a video about the process of building it. The sculpture dramatizes a basic premise of architecture, which is making something level on uneven terrain. We built it with these large oak beams, using the classic method of joinery.
Like a barn, right?
Yes, actually a couple of people in the crew had worked on barns. Bill worked on a number of those projects, and helped organize them. After that came Shorings (1978–79) at the Artpark, in Lewiston, NY.
I made models for Shorings on the beach in Mallorca where I was teaching that summer. It’s funny, the whole project was conceptualized like that and I always liked these models. The work itself ended up like this.
Yes, I remember that from the catalog.
In Shorings this is what you saw when you’re at the top of that work.
Interesting, I don’t think that I understood that it had three sides like that.
The sculpture was built into a shelf, on a steep slope the top of which overlooked the town and roads. This was the first time I had tools like a backhoe and someone to operate it, who dug the shelf. Then three walls were built into it and the space was filled up with earth again. The idea of Shorings being that they are elements that support a wall.
The site sculptures were hard to photograph. This was Mound for Viewing Slope and Sky (1980–87) on the Princeton University campus. It was five feet in the front and eight feet in the back so if you walk across the front you’re looking across the top with a big framework built into it. The framework extended the line of the top of the mound across the site. In the back you were looking up a bank 8’ high.
I see. It’s tricky with sculpture sometimes to understand the work from photographs, you really need the physical experience.
It is hard with this kind of work. Not much has been written about the sculptures there although several years ago Artpark published a book that describes them.
My site sculptures of the 1970’s provided a testing ground for later commissions like The Roundabout (1992) at Thomas Jefferson University in Center City, Philadelphia. [PHOTO] All my 70’s works were temporary, whereas this is a permanent installation This was a very difficult project. The Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia had a competition, and five finalists were invited to present proposals in the form of a model, and were paid to do that. There were two committees, one that selected the artist, and they chose me. The other committee, part of the Redevelopment Authority, decided they didn’t like my proposal, so they rejected the proposal but they didn’t reject me. They said all right you’re the artist, come up with something else. I had to somehow deal with that committee and figure out what to do. I realized that the architects on the committee, the landscape architect and the regular architect, had the most pragmatic criticism of my original proposal so I asked for a smaller committee, just the architects, and they were great! They stuck with it and supported me, and what I finally did was much better than the initial proposal.
The Redevelopment Authority did nothing about my being paid, so that left me and the client, Jefferson, to deal with all that. I got Jefferson University to issue me a contract. That’s another thing that you have to deal with on these big projects, how do you take care of yourself?
That’s true, it can be very challenging.
We could talk about the materials used in The Roundabout You know, concrete is kind of a cousin to plaster, it seizes up on you after you put it into a certain shape. [construction photo]
I decided the curving walls would be concrete to define the spaces of the project. I had designed a water wall facing the building’s front door. This was built into a large central earth mound. The contractor (the project was integrated into the overall construction documents) had to construct very elaborate curved wooden formwork for the poured-in-place concrete. I love these photos of when they’re making these walls.
Oh yes, the construction photos are fascinating, seeing how it’s put together, all the inner workings you don’t get to see once it’s done.
I know, all those things are important and deeply moving actually.
The Jefferson building is a cancer research center and one of the reasons that I conceived of the space
in this way was because the labs are in the middle of each floor and closed with no view, but a walkway/corridor on each floor has you looking down on this space which is actually the building forecourt.
Oh, ok, so the space you created is really the central focus.
This space is also encountered from the street by people walking past, and by pedestrians who walk thru and around in it. The front door of the building was four and half feet above street level, and I thought, maybe I can use this because it was the same idea as the Princeton mound. From the street side of the mound you’re looking at the surface of the grass, and up to the top. When you go up the paths on either side you’re at another level. That’s where the water wall fits into the mound. At the top of the mound, people can look across an expanse of large granite slabs that the water runs across before tumbling down the face of a vertical granite wall into a pool below on the level of the front door. I had an engraving of a little dam in the Schuylkill River outside of Philadelphia and this relates to that idea of water running across and down to another level. This was a different take on what you think of as a fountain for a public space, with jets of water. This is a more direct reference to the landscape.
It’s also similar to some of my early projects where people had to get into the middle of it before they really discovered what’s going on
I was thinking there’s a certain kind of freedom in doing something temporary because there isn’t the complexity of the plumbing and the wiring and the engineering. Those projects don’t have to endure the public in the same way. The public is really rough on any artwork or installation that’s outside.
Well, that’s true. Many of those site sculptures were temporary. I mean, they seem complicated and we built things that were very complex and could have remained, or sometimes did remain for a year or so on the site, but they were not permanent. It was wonderful to be able to build Shorings for instance, I could try something on a big scale that I just wouldn’t think of, couldn’t even think of doing on my own. So that aspect of the temporary work was good. The most famous artist who made temporary work was Christo. Actually, you know who was as interesting as Christo was his wife, Jeanne Claude. She was the one who dealt with all the bureaucracy and pushed all these things through, and it took years. What they did was temporary, but they went to this enormous amount of trouble to do it, and then they took it down a couple of weeks later. That always bothered me, the amount of effort and money and everything else that went into those big projects, many of which were wonderful. To me that was the epitome of the artist projecting their ego into the public but leaving nothing afterwards except the photographs.
And the memory of the experience . . .
I don’t like to impose a moral judgement on it exactly, but when I think of the effort, and it did involve large groups of people to build them, and what did they have afterwards? They had memories I guess and some photos, and the place went back to whatever it was like to begin with. I think the more valuable temporary work is one that gives artists freedom to experiment, succeed or fail, whatever.
In the 1960s there were programs like the Design Arts part of the NEA, there was the beginning of the realization that funds could be legislated for artists. The artists would be paid for what they did and were given authority over their work. One of the first public projects that I worked on was in Seattle, WA. There were five of us who went through the process of presenting our work, and we had to be interviewed too. It was like a job, really.
This is the Seattle Transit System?
Yes, but you know the art world doesn’t like the artist having a job. If they have a job, it’s supposed to be washing windows or painting walls, but not to be paid to function like an artist. A lot of my friends didn’t know what I was doing, they didn’t understand it. I did it because it was fascinating, actually.
To go into an architecture office and go to the meetings, and get to know every inch of the main part of Seattle. And just the whole back and forth, the discussion and everything, and the politics! It’s intense and it’s a business, and all of a sudden you had some voice in that. I went back and forth to Seattle every couple of weeks, and I was teaching at SVA at the same time. Working on a design team you tried to get as many ideas into the system as you could. Later I worked on the St. Louis transit system and that was really strange because the artists were hired before the architects!
That is surprising!
There were five of us, four women and one man, and some of the artists hadn’t had that much experience in these sorts of projects. We decided at the beginning we would rather not get a commission out of this, but instead to get involved with the infrastructure, the walls, the canopies, the platforms, all of that. One of the artists, Leila Daw, lived in St Louis which was good because she got to know the engineers. She and Anna Valentina Murch, from San Francisco, worked with the engineers on the infrastructure and they determined the shape of the columns used to support the tracks of the system from St. Louis to the airport.
Oh, ok. I remember photos of those, they were Y-shaped, much more interesting than a typical support column.
Yes, they were very striking. I worked on the canopies in the first part of that project and eventually Tod Williams architecture firm determined the final version which was really very elegant. After that, I worked on a transit system in Birmingham, England, with an artist I knew from Seattle named Jack Mackie. We were “appointed” as they say there, but we said this isn’t right, there should be an English artist working with us. Eventually we were joined by a sculptor who wanted to embed the electric lines in the pavement instead of putting them up on poles. We thought, this is great, he really is thinking outside the box. He’d done a lot of landscape projects and he walked the whole railroad line, which was in the Black Country, with abandoned coal mines. Bridges and retaining walls on the existing right of way were made of black clay bricks. Powerful nineteenth-century infrastructure. We put together a report with suggestions for the whole right-of-way. I think they never did any of it; they went back to their old routine with the same old thing for each station and they stuck a little mosaic or pattern somewhere. I thought, well maybe this is what England is really like.
The last transit system I worked on was in Charlotte, NC, from 2002 till 2008, with co-lead artist Marek Ranis and Greg Leonard of the landscape architecture firm Sasaki.
Tell me about that project, what did you do there?
It’s a light rail line through downtown Charlotte and out to the surrounding suburban areas. I made these patterns in the sidewalks, they’re markings to call out certain areas. I had never seen that done before, but now these patterns appear at every station throughout the whole system. And in the parking areas as well. Big projects like this have miles and miles of concrete sidewalk. I don’t know if an artist has ever addressed this element before.
What materials were you using to make the patterns? Was it colored concrete or mosaic?
You know when you’re on the street in New York, at the corner there’s a little slope and these lines? They’re made with a special tool, and I just took that technique and used it. We also made borders along the sidewalks and pathways. I also did a lot of planting plans too, you know you asked about plants . . .
I was curious about how you worked with plants, and whether this was in collaboration with landscape architects. There are a lot of challenges to plants and trees as an art material because they’re always changing and growing.
The issue of plant material is difficult, for instance in New York City, the art programs (MTA, School Construction Authority) do not cover any plant material. They don’t want an artist to use it, they don’t want to be responsible for keeping it alive. On the other hand, in The Roundabout, we planted young trees on one of the paths and now it’s a real allée and creates a wonderful shaded area that wasn’t there before. I always liked the way the trees are planted as in a tree farm.
In a grid?
Yes, in rows actually, rather than mass plantings and in the Ronkonkoma station in Long Island, I made alternate rows of white and pink blooming cherry trees so that in the spring there was this pattern. I think that that was one of the only, if not the only, MTA art project where plants were an integral part of the design.
So those are instances where I was able to use plants. It’s tricky. All these public projects are enormously vulnerable, especially anything with plants. Some places take care of their plants, I think they do at The Roundabout. New York City . . . I’m not too sure. Not so great. But I love to do that kind of work, I learned a lot from landscape architects.
In a more general way, who were some of the artists who particularly inspired you at different points in your work, or who you thought were doing interesting work even if it was completely different from what you were doing?
I think the different places I’ve lived or visited have inspired me the most. I’m more inspired by my memories of where I grew up in Jamaica Estates in Queens, which was not like it is today. My father built our house there in 1928, and there may have been another house down the road, but it was mostly woods at that time. As I was growing up it all began to fill in, so I always heard the sounds of building going on. Kids would play in the foundations of the new houses, and that had an effect on me. And being able to wander around and find wildflowers in the woods or play on a big fallen tree.
Another place was Stratford, Ontario, in Canada. My mother was Canadian and she used to bring my younger sister and me there pretty much every summer, particularly during the polio epidemic in the 30s in New York City. My grandparents’ house was on the wide main street, where the houses were set above the level of the roadway. There was a slope that went up to the sidewalk, and beyond that was the front yard and the house. I mean here was this basic infrastructure and if you sat on this little bank on the edge of the roadway as a kid you felt safe. I don’t know why that had that effect on me but somehow I thought, what a very humane thing to do.
The other two places that were very important to me were France and Japan. After I graduated from Columbia, I had a grant to go to Aubusson for a year to study tapestry-making, and that was a life-changing experience. I’d never been away from home and that whole year was different because I was speaking French most of the time (I don’t know how well) and that trip had an enormous effect on me. I visited many Romanesque churches and their frescos and a Corbusier building Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. More recently I went to Japan and spent time in Kyoto. I went to see Ryoanji, the temple with the Zen rock garden. I remember sitting there all afternoon just looking at it, and I realized that a masterpiece like that can be just as inspiring as a great painting.
In the work of my contemporaries I liked the frameworks of Sol LeWitt. They answered some questions and influenced my sculpture that depended on a framework as well. My work was different from his because it had more detail in relation to the structure but how it was put together, the concept of making the framework as the entity, that was important to me. With those plaster pieces, there’s a funny reference in there to Bob Ryman’s work, and I knew him and Lucy Lippard as part of a group of friends. There are also people like my husband who helped me a lot or influenced me a lot in how I did things, how things were built. Also my then brother-in-law Jim Rosenquist (my sister was married to him for about 13 years) was sort of my connection to the art world. He’s one of the Pop Artists so his work wasn’t anything like mine exactly but he played this sort of brotherly role. I liked Agnes Martin’s painting, it’s beautiful, and Lee Bontecou . .
I think her sculptures are quite amazing.
In the early 60s there were very few women, Marisol and Lee Bontecou were the only women who were really showing regularly or were well-known. Lee Bontecou did these things quite related to sewing and use of materials like wire and cloth and I found her work more compelling. Oh, I should have mentioned Robert Smithson, who I kind of knew; actually I knew his wife Nancy Holt better.
Oh yes, I love Sun Tunnels (1973–76).
Yes! They worked in similar vein but she outlived him by quite a few years. She did a park in Virginia and I think she provided a model of someone who was able to navigate the bureaucracy and create public works, so I admired her for that. The people doing site sculptures in the 70s, Mary Miss, and Harriet Feigenbaum, and Alice Aycock, a lot of us were working at the same time, so there was kind of awareness. I don’t think artists always influence one another face to face, they’re sort of out there and you’re aware of what they’re doing
What role does drawing play in your practice, in the public works and otherwise?
In the site work, there’s the conceptual stage, the first stage, and the drawings that give shape to the idea, often a maquette. Then there are the measured drawings that the architects create, and then the final drawings, the documents, that they build something from, and those are enormous! For The Roundabout there was a big pile of drawings, you’ve got the plumbing, lighting, and all that working together. It’s very complex; it’s simple to be in your studio and make something, as compared to these big projects.
Large public projects often involve a lot of drawing. There are so many different kinds of drawing. I like to go out and draw plants, just draw what I see. I’ve always done that, I have books full of drawings from traveling and every place. And then there’s these other drawings that I do that are systemic; I try to draw every day and it’s kind of a contemplative kind of drawing. Sort of like praying or something. And then all the other kinds of drawings that are done as part of those projects. All have their special interest. Some can be quite beautiful. I am thinking in particular of the drawings done by the architect KJ for my project Beaded Circle Crossing (1994) in the Denver International Airport.
It’s interesting because drawing can serve so many different purposes for artists, it can dovetail into their work in so many ways.
Yes, it’s like the closest that you come to things in a way, as artists.
Jonathan D. Lippincott is the author of two books, the monograph Robert Murray: Sculpture, and Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, On-Verge, and Tether: A Journal of Art, Literature, and Culture, and he wrote the catalog essay for the exhibition Illumination: the sculpture of James O. Clark. He has curated shows including Chromatic Space, the eightieth-anniversary exhibition for American Abstract Artists, at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center in New York City, and Celestial and Terrestrial, at the New Arts Program in Kutztown, PA.