Introduction to Alice Adams

 

 

Out of the Paradigm

Susan Nigra Snyder

 

 

 

 
henever I take people to see Alice Adams' work in Philadelphia, The Roundabout, the most common reaction is, "No kidding, an artist really did this? This is big; it's complex; there are trees and water; it's a real urban place." Then a bit later, predictably, "OK, so where's the art?" These reactions might never occur to someone not expecting to see a public art work. But they get at the essence of what makes Adams' work different. She is an artist who comfortably works in the architectural process with consultants, construction managers and shop drawings. She's also an artist who doesn't work in the art paradigm of gallery sites or esoteric messages. So it's not surprising that if you expect ART, bounded and neat in its own world, then you won't be prepared for Adams' sites or more fluid, subliminal messages.

It is how Adams' works negotiate the differences between art and design that makes them powerful public works. It's commonly said that if it's design, it isn't art, implying a difference in conception and process of making. But the real differences lie in how we experience the work—the difference between viewing and inhabitation. We experience art through its separation from ourselves, we view it and if we're clued into the language, it speaks to us. But we experience architectural and landscape works by taking possession of them by our actions, we inhabit them. Inhabitation is different from occupation, that is, merely being somewhere. When we inhabit a place there's a give and take between what it is and what we make of it for our purposes.When we occupy a place, we take it over or it takes us over. But when inhabitant and place co-exist, one does not dominate the other. It's a sign of good design when this can happen. Places that can be inhabited have enough room in their design to allow someone to take possession of them yet, are strong enough to have integrity about what they are that endures over time. Alice Adams' public works exist between forms that can be simultaneously viewed and inhabited. It is how Adams' works negotiate the differences between art and design that makes them powerful public works. It's commonly said that if it's design, it isn't art, implying a difference in conception and process of making. But the real differences lie in how we experience the work‹the difference between viewing and inhabitation. We experience art through its separation from ourselves, we view it and if we're clued into the language, it speaks to us. But we experience architectural and landscape works by taking possession of them by our actions, we inhabit them. Inhabitation is different from occupation, that is, merely being somewhere. When we inhabit a place there's a give and take between what it is and what we make of it for our purposes.When we occupy a place, we take it over or it takes us over. But when inhabitant and place co-exist, one does not dominate the other. It's a sign of good design when this can happen. Places that can be inhabited have enough room in their design to allow someone to take possession of them yet, are strong enough to have integrity about what they are that endures over time. Alice Adams' public works exist between forms that can be simultaneously viewed and inhabited.

If we compare Adams' early temporary installations and her permanent public work, we can see how these differences between viewing and inhabitation affect our experience. Three early site projects in Princeton, New Jersey, Lewiston, New York and Omaha, Nebraska are abstract in form. The idea behind the architectural line of the top of the earth mound and stud wall at Princeton (Mound for Viewing Slope and Sky) was to explore a flat tilted plane (i.e. a large grassy slope) in the landscape that never has such precision of flatness or straightness. At Lewiston (Shorings), the enigmatic three-sided enclosure dug into a slope referred to the mysterious interior of near-by containment sites like Love Canal. The inverted pyramid of earth with a skeletal cone structure (Alice's first and only cantilever) in Omaha (Vertical Up for OOIC) had a precarious dangerous quality. In fact, all of these works had an air of danger about them if you were to try to occupy them or, apply standard building codes. The experience was mostly about viewing but, if you connected what you saw with the surrounding context, the effect was to place you in a different relationship to context.

The next set of early sculptures, more cultural, sculptural and architectural in form move the viewer a step closer to the inhabitant. Adams' House and The Lost House look like a house but neither is a real building, only a fragment. The house forms appear as a dream or apparition in the landscape creating nostalgia. They are symbolic and evocative without being real. (But they are real for Adams who derived them from the childhood house her father built in Jamaica, New York.) By using recognizable forms to draw you in, Adams is able to deconstruct barriers between the viewer and her sculpture. These sculptures aren't unfamiliar or new. They're an extension of the identifiable world. So you can simultaneously view them and take possession of them with your mind, a kind of mental inhabitation.

Adams says, "My later work challenges people. It seduces them. They don't know if it's art, sculpture or something else. And you have to give them something once you've drawn them in." It's really the way Adams' work flows with the familiar world without barrier or boundary that makes it possible for people to take possession of it on their own terms and inhabit the place she has created. At the most basic level, there's a spatial continuity with the surroundings that reinforces natural patterns. She doesn't create a precinct for the art experience, it happens gradually. At Thomas Jefferson University, the paths of The Roundabout entice you in from the sidewalk directly to the building entrance or to just cut the corner on your way to somewhere else, much the way it worked with the old grassy corner that preceded it. At the University of Delaware, Scroll Circle acts like an interchange connecting all the campus routes that converge there. Beyond a family of forms and ideas that make Adams' work identifiable, the public work all has the same purpose—to bring people into something familiar that they will have to think about in a new way.

Adams uses a kind of behavioral continuity by anticipating and reinforcing normative urban patterns. Watching other people while catching the warm sun in the fall or spring is one of the great pleasures of sitting outside in the city. Adams has very quietly provided for this at The Roundabout by offering extroverted grassy slopes and linear walls at seat height that face both the sun and the street‹an invitation that reinforces natural tendencies. One of her favorite photos is that of a man sitting with his dog on the grassy mound, gazing out. What a fantastic reaction her work has inspired by placing this pair in a different relationship to their neighborhood. She says of this photo, "He could be looking out across the mountains."

If your eye can read the scale of the human body, you'll quickly see that it's implicit in all of Adams' forms without their overtly being furniture. This close attention to how people will inhabit her places is precise and controlled, but the net effect is to allow people a freedom in how they appropriate places to sit, to lounge, to be apart or together. The curvilinear forms offer subtle inflections of one person to another or a place to form a small group. The curves enliven the space visually, but what they do to people animates the place. It's not as obvious as sitting on a bench next to someone, but these spatial inflections can also break down our inhibitions about talking to a stranger in public while we share a common experience. Part of the art of Adams' public work is that it quietly manipulates relationships of body to place and thereby intensifies our experience and awareness of ourselves to others and to the civic context.

The slopes, grass and walls, however, are not only about accommodating people. There are physical things you have to do to experience what's there. As in the earlier work, there's a spatial challenge involved. At The Roundabout, you have to climb up on the mound. This elevated position—it's only a few feet—makes the familiar street corner seem completely different from this prospect. It's an example of how Adams can use minimal means to transform our experience of the familiar. And it's also a good example of how the experience of her work has changed over time. When we viewed the earth mound at Princeton, we could think differently about a familiar context. But at Jefferson, we can actually feel the different experience of the familiar corner by our physical actions. Alice's art is alive, not static; open to individual ways of experiencing it, not dictatorial and never completed until it's physically experienced.

Sometimes she takes on the familiar by placing us in an unconventional relationship to it. When walking by The Roundabout on the street, your eyes are at ground level with the sloping earth mound. Alice describes this as a subliminal message,"With the growing grass before you at eye level, you must look at the earth close-up and perhaps in a more intimate way than you would ordinarily encounter in the city." Her description is quite abstract for a grassy slope that's nice to sit on but this is exactly the trick she plays when she entices you in. What might appear prosaic at a glance, will in fact sustain wonder when you attend to it close-up.

Other times, she uses simplified versions of pieces of the familiar local architectural fabric. She has written in a design manual for a new transit (light rail) line in Birmingham, England (Midland Metro Line 1: Design Guide),1"Aesthetic criteria can be found in the fabric and texture of the built environment of a region. The streets, buildings and landscapes constitute a living history, that can be read, studied and understood for its symbolic content and meaning." For The Roundabout on the Thomas Jefferson University campus, the ubiquitous marble door steps of Philadelphia row houses—the best place to sit on the street and talk with neighbors—become seats along the entrance path. At the University of Delaware the scroll-like circular and oval forms evoke the feeling of the work of landscape architect Marion Kruger Coffin, designer of the campus. At Convention Place Station in Seattle, the tubular steel entrance marquees echo shapes from the Paramount Theater across the street. It's this attention to the local conditions that ground her work in each site specifically. But it's also important to understand that these forms aren't just abstractions of the locale. They are layered with references from Adams' world whose meaning is evident sometimes only if you know the provenance. The shape of the paving pattern and the mound at The Roundabout incorporate references to Thomas Jefferson's designs at Monticello; the stair wings, Mackintosh's entrance stairs to the Glasgow School of Art. At Scroll Circle, the curved shapes not only recall Celtic manuscripts but also Adams' childhood connection to typography at her father's printing business. Removed from original context and imbued with associations from Adams' vision, these forms are both familiar and new simultaneously.

In all built works meaning resides somewhere between the intentions of the makers and the manipulation of the users for their own ends. Adams considers her message to be democratic, that on whatever level it should touch people who are there. This begins with the craftsmen that make the work. Adams says, "In interpreting the shop drawings, the construction workers find that the artist has led them to build something that they may not have seen before. This is a challenge; it's exciting and those of us who work on public projects see it as returning an ancient sense of craft to the building trades." Jack Mackie observed about the paving patterns Adams and Sonya Ishii had designed in the Downtown Seattle Transit Project, "Alice wasn't there when they were constructing them, but the bricklayers were doing block after block of herring-bone brick, and when they got to these they all really wanted to express their skills and craft and argued over who got to do them. The engineers worked on the project, but the brick and tile-layers found that the things the artists brought in were the really exciting ones that challenged their skills." Arthur Danto says, "Public art is the public transfigured: it is us, in the medium of artistic transformation." Adams draws you into an art experience when you were merely going about a normal day.

If the fluidity of context (both physical and mental) in Adams' work blurs boundaries between where the art begins and ends, then it's not surprising that her design process also blurs established procedures of making art with the architectural process. The architectural process involves working with a team of consultants to understand the issues the project presents for different disciplines and then, synthesizing this into a design that meets a budget and schedule. A lot of work is in systems that are hidden from view—the infrastructure of the project. Architects typically are the team leaders of this process. It's complex and requires a breadth of knowledge that comes from education and apprenticeship. So to find an artist who works comfortably in this process is unusual. Adams has learned much of this on the job. From fabricators she learned about construction details. She taught herself how to read drawings and what the conventions of the disciplines were. Adams characterizes her role as "making sure you get what you want into the documents." Adams has a light touch but she's firmly in control.

Adams first worked as part of a design team, along with other artists, for the Downtown Seattle Transit Project and later in St. Louis, on Metrolink. These teams included architects, landscape architects, engineers and public officials. Noting that many artists aren't challenged except by the art world paradigm and often walk away if they can't maintain their vision, she says that working side by side with other design professionals taught her adaptability, "If you don't get something in one form, push it in another way." This process gives the artist the possibility of extending ideas. It also taught her that working with others is not making art by committee, another popular misconception about public projects. Working as part of a team and presenting work as it develops to review groups means that you'll be endlessly questioned about what you're doing. In some cases, Adams works as a team leader with consultants who develop her designs from knowledge of their own disciplines. In other instances, it's a collaboration. The architectural process demands constant interpretation and refinement and, in the public art process, endless meetings to defend decisions. This may be daunting to artists who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are easily wounded. But for Adams, her strength of conviction and flexibility enable her to achieve her designs.

The methodology of the architectural process involves attention to simultaneous scales while designing. Adams' studies and sketches show a facility for going back and forth between detail and whole. She works comfortably at the scale of the urban fabric, seeing her project as an extension of the street or campus and, at the scale of construction details, thinking about how it is made and what it will communicate. The architectural process also involves expressing an idea in the language of various disciplines in the way Adams' work integrates construction, landscape and sculptural expressions. It's interesting to note that in her early projects, the wooden structures were rigorous examples of framing practices and made the construction explicit in the expression. The later work at The Roundabout and Scroll Circle seems to sheath the construction and become more expressive of form and shape. It seems that the more her work is embedded in the architectural process, the more sculptural the forms have become. Similarly, a comparison between the relationship of planting in these two projects shows a tendency toward more sculptural form. Adams used planting at The Roundabout to establish a sense of place by echoing the intent of the design: a straight formal entrance path planted as an allée, a fragment of a formal garden; and a curvilinear thicket path planted more like an orchard or a bramble. Here the spatial arrangements established the design, all planting and material choices only amplified it. But at Scroll Circle the planting is integral to the forms. It would be impossible to remove it and retain the spatial intent.

 

 

 

Methodology and structure of design teams are objectified examples of how Adams blurs boundaries between disciplines in creating her art. More fundamental, however, is how she thinks about her work. In talking about her early projects at Princeton University and at Bemis Park in Omaha, she says, "Both create a sense of excitement by placing one on a level platform above an uneven terrain." Neither project would be confused with architecture but both embody an attitude toward site that is architectural: using a platform to mediate our relationship to the context. For Thomas Jefferson University, Adams was one of five entries in an invited competition.2 She was unique in noticing the slight level change, four feet, over a long distance from street corner to door. This attention to slope is more likely to be noticed by a landscape architect concerned with paving and drainage. But Adams did more than note a condition. She saw the possibility of relative level changes that enabled her to construct the earth mound, keeping the ascent at five feet but the level above the street at eight feet. What Adams sees in the context of her projects isn't bounded by each discipline's established paradigms, so it's not surprising that her beginning vision leads to designs that can't be stereotyped.

Adams' public work breaks down boundaries between art, related disciplines and site context in both experience and creative process. Although Adams' work might be called "public art" and thus explain why it's different from "gallery art" this is too easy and imprecise. First, there are common misconceptions about "public art" that should be dismissed. They offer simplistic and superficial criteria. Identifying the work as "public art" by virtue of its location in a public place, or funding, or chronological dates that reflect art-world trends or styles are all merely descriptive and don't begin to address the significance of Adams' work. Public art is better defined by the way it works. Public art always works in the margins of established disciplines: it is not wholly art, architecture or landscape. The instant it sits too comfortably inside a discipline it becomes merely a sculpture, or merely a building or merely site furnishings and cedes its power to convention. Public art also always works at the edge of people's expectations: it is encountered in the routine of life, not in the circumscribed art arena. Adams' art clearly works in these margins leading those who think in paradigms to be unprepared for how she is defining her medium.

Adams notes that the single most unfair preconception of the twentieth century is that of the solitary artist as the only valid expressive voice in art. Her public works are complex projects in size, scope, budget and audience. Like movies, architecture and urban works, these projects require a large number of people to address the implicit issues. Adams says, "Works of intense feeling and emotion can be accomplished by a group of people. It's a fallacy that emotional content exists only in work by single individuals (painting or sculpture) and is dissipated rather than intensified in work by a group." Reflecting on how many but not all of her colleagues understand what she does, Adams is aware that she is constantly defining and refining what she does as each new project presents a new set of conditions. Her work is not "about art," it's about defining what art is today when it's part of the world.

1 The design manual for the Centro transit agency was written with Jack Mackie, Andrew Darke and Geoff Wood. 2 The competitors were Alice Adams, Alice Aycock, Patsy Norvell Martha Schwartz with R.M. Fischer, and Meg Webster. Jenny Dixon was the art consultant for the competition.

 

 

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