Paintings by Pat Adams
Gatherum of Quiddities:
April 1 through June 18
“For sixty years Pat Adams has approached painting with an empiricist’s concern for the nature of visual form and the intimist’s sensibility that addresses the layered complexity of being. With abstract paintings characterized by seductive colors and richly encrusted surfaces, Pat seeks to bring from her “gatherum of quiddities” – that stew of unnamed qualities – a visual situation that bestirs contemplation.”
Pat Adams (b. 1928), That is to Say, 2010, oil, isobutyl methacrylate, pencil and crayon on paper mounted to panel, 19 x 24 inches, courtesy of the artist
From 1973 through 1976 Pat Adams was my professor at Bennington College. Pat already had 20 years of experience as a serious artist, showing in New York and collected by museums. The “landscape” for women artists was not an open one. The art world was both smaller and fairly closed to women. Things were changing, but most advances were hard won. I’m not really prepared to talk about what Pat was up against. All I can tell you is that until the 1980s, I believe, only two women had had a one person shows at the Guggenheim — Helen Frankenthaler and Helen Frankenthaler.
Seeing Pat’s paintings today I wonder why I didn’t know them better; why I wasn’t more aware of what she was thinking; what her process was; what battles she was waging on canvas. This retrospective at The Bennington Museum gave me a chance to experience her work and also see some of her materials: things she was looking at, tiny drawings she compiled endlessly in her notebooks. It was a revelation.
It was the opening night and not the best opportunity to take in the work, but at the end of the evening, when the rooms emptied, I had a moment to look closely at some of the pieces with the director of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff. I was struck by how my eyes were pulled around the canvas, how I flet moments of speed and slowness, of agitation and rest, of chaos and precision — like I was entering the universe. I wondered at the surfaces. How she achieved tiny irregularly shaped dots in a grid, how she painted a curved line that was at once as precise as a calligrapher’s curve, and yet broken in spots revealing the paint surface beneath. There was something so illogical about this line, so confounding, I couldn’t figure out how it was made.
When I was able to speak briefly with Pat during the show, she told me that some of the marks on the canvas were achieved by a kind of printing or transfer process. Painting on mylar and “stamping” it onto the canvas. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about the lines.
Pat’s paintings are full of texture and unusual materials, mica, sand, pigment, and other minerals. Wolterstorff was most taken by this aspect of the work, which made him think of both Keifer’s straw and Beuys’ lard and felt. I forgot to mention to him that there was a Beuys exhibition at the college in the 1970s.
As we looked at the paintings, the rigor of the composition struck both of us. To me, they felt like mathematical journeys. Jamie Franklin, the curator, had displayed some things that Pat had pulled elements from — postcards of a Gothic Cathedral, the composition of an old Master painting, the shape of a sliced geode. All of these were echoed in the work.
Pat Adams’ Notebook
I believe that in the misogynistic days of the 1970s, these elements were at times dismissed as decorative. Seeing them now I know that they were no more decorative than the letters of a formula. What, after all, can be eliminated from E = mc 2 .
If you go:
75 Main Street
Bennington, VT 05201-2885
June through October:
Open daily 10 am to 5 pm
Closed July 4
November through May:
Open Thursday through Tuesday (closed Wednesday)
Closed month of January, Easter, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day
Closes at 1 pm on December 24 and 31
A catalog will be available. Call the Museum Store 802-447-1571 to order.
Most of my Facebook friends are artists. As I scrolled through their posts this summer, I found that I was most drawn to work of modest means, that I felt had a monumental impact. Three of these artists are Lori Ellison, Wilma Vissers and Paul Pagk.
Lori Ellison, Ink on Notebook Paper
Lori Ellison has been singled out by Roberta Smith, so my observation of this work is in no way unique. What I like in particular is the way Ellison creates her pieces on common paper or school grade notebooks. She is immediately tempting you to compare her work to doodles, and not the doodles of a great artist, but the doodles of a student. The mastery in her work occurs on many levels, not the least of which, is to not fall into any doodling cliches. This is not Zentangle, after all.
And her work echoes eloquently the work of past maters, as in this piece inspired by Matisse — or this one that brings Brice Marden to mind.
The rigor of Ellison’s simplicity, is what I admire. I love how her work engages me in the process. They almost beg you to try to imitate them — and perhaps it is precisely in this process of putting pen to paper, that you begin to feel her decision making, her clear and precise choices — how the image sits on the page, how it relates to the edge, how it interacts with the lines on the page.
These drawings have an impact that is emotionally complex and visually exciting.
Lori Ellison in her studio.
Wilma Vissers’ drawing are ones that I come back to over and over. They are often executed in drawing notebooks and I have come to feel that the middle fold of the page is very much a part of the composition.
In fact, before I figured out that they were in notebooks, I thought she was purposefully folding the page to create a line from the fold and something that signaled a reverse side, a second part or a mirror image. She sometimes has a solid shape with a hairy line.
She has built a vocabulary that is strangely compelling.
Vissers drawings are either studies or a separate work from the objects she creates. The objects or wall pieces to me appear to come from the tradition of Richard Tuttle. Each object made in a unique material. Frequently small, the odd bits have a feeling of rightness, an inevitability that I also see is Tuttle;s work.
Some Wilma Vissers’ pieces on the wall of her studio.
Paul Pagk decided to post a series of drawing and studies from a few years ago. To me these are moments of pleasure. Each piece seemed to celebrate a line, a shape or a color.
Paul Pagk, oil, pastel, ink and silver crayon on paper.
In this piece, I was taken by his use of blue. It made me think of Matisse’s blue cutouts and Diebenkorn’s use of blue. After scrolling through his drawings my response was, “Damn, I wish I did that.”
Look at the placement of the drawing on this paper.
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto, Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
Below is a continuation of my experience of working with Master Printer Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press in Otego, New York. You can read Part I by clicking here.
Tim in his spot.
I believe that one of the reasons we were able to accomplish so much in a short period of time was due, in part, to my planning, but in a larger part due to Tim’s organization and economy of movement. His studio is set up, just as with a short order cook, with everything at hand. Tim stands in one spot in the studio with two glass slabs in front of him, his inks to his right next to an old Uline catalog that serves as paper on which to clean his palette knives, rags below him, solvent to his right, the press behind him, and printing paper to his far left. He didn’t move more than three feet all day.
Old Uline catalog used as scrap paper.
I, on the other hand, walked miles, as I found a spot across from him to watch as he mixed colors and then moved to the other side of the room to watch the print being rolled with ink.
Tim Inking Plate
Tim and I worked through all the color permutations. There were several points where we would have loved to have stopped, because the results were so beautiful. It was time to add the black that depicts the branches. This was the final step, the last layer of color. He pulled the first print and THUD! Disaster! Worst print of the day.
Tom looked worried and disappointed. I think he was afraid that I’d be devastated. Instead, I felt that the print confirmed what I had felt ever since seeing the first tentative proofs weeks earlier — the black just didn’t work. In paint and even in the computer generated image, the black acted like a gestalt – stunning and integrated into the overall image. In the print, the black sat on top of the page both dwarfing and destroying the colors beneath. It might as well have been a black and white print. Tim and I both thought that switching to a middle gray would accomplish what I was after. Even within the gray you can have a range of color, and I wanted the gray skewed toward lavender.
Pantone book, oil paint sample and computer generated image.
This is when Tim finally pulled out the Pantone book. This is the printer’s Bible. It contains every color he can mix with his inks, and gives him the formula to do so. I flipped through the color samples and pointed to the color I wanted. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. It quickly became apparent that the other color versions of the print could also use gray, but the value of the gray would have to be adjusted to work with the other color versions.
Getting exactly the right shade of gray (don’t even go there) was as much work as determining the other color combinations.
As we printed each layer we were both delighting in the detail. But here is the truly confounding result: it seemed that the print would have to be viewed from about 18 inches for them to be appreciated. That is exactly the opposite effect of my paintings, which look best when viewed from across the room. The paintings look painterly close up (down right messy, in fact), but at a certain distance they snap into focus and look almost photo realistic.
When we added the gray to the print Tim and I found ourselves backing up across the studio. The prints were still reading well from twenty five feet away. We managed to produce the same effect in the print as in my paintings.
Once we saw these qualities in one print, it was a matter of bringing that effect to all the prints. Sometimes remarkably small adjustments made the difference between reading the print as color and reading it as light. This is where the skill and integrity of a Master Printer makes all the difference. The work is demanding and exhausting. At the eleventh hour, Tim was still willing to mix one more color and make one more adjustment so that I could see if we could perfect the print.
A great Master Printer hangs in there with you to the end. When your energy flags, he shores you up, so that you can produce the best work possible. Tim told me over and over that it was about my vision, and he did everything in his power to make that happen.
“In [Van Gogh’s] studio, he kept a lacquered box containing balls of brightly colored yarn that he endlessly twined and untwined to test the interaction of colors – exactly the procedure described by Chevereul, who had developed his theory as director of dyes for the royal looms at Gobelins.” [Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifen and Gregory White Smith]
You know when there is a painter you really love, where everything about their work excites you and you go in the studio and spend all your time trying to avoid that person’s work? Well, for a long time I felt that way about Janet Fish, especially when I first started painting representationally. One day I decided that the only way to find out what my painting was about was to try to make the most Fishesque paintings that I could. So, first, just in case you are not familiar, let me show you her work.
Janet Fish, “Green Glass from Alexis”
Janet Fish, “Tulips”
Janet Fish has two studios, one in New York and one in Vermont. Several years ago she built a new studio in Vermont, which made it possible for her to have a painting space that faced east and one that faced west. As I understand it, during the morning light she paints in the east studio and in the afternoon she paints in the west studio. She works almost entirely from life, and not only does she chase the morning and afternoon light, she also chases the light around her canvas, painting each section when the light on that item looks best. So, the light in her paintings do not represent one moment, but time passing.
She takes a long time to set up her still lifes. Her studio is filled with props that she organizes chromatically on bookshelves.
Fish is known for her highly chromatic paintings, her reflective surfaces, her painting of glass and other transparent substances such as plastic, as well as, a space fully populated with objects. There is frequently an underlying reference or narrative that is personal. She sometimes includes friends and neighbors in her paintings, and even many of the objects are things that her friends lend her. But her paintings are also about formal issues of color, light and composition.
When I set about to do a Fishesque painting, I put together objects that I saw in her paintings, such as shells, then things that reflected light, such as fabric that changes its sheen as the light changes; ribbons; anything that sparkled, was transparent or translucent. This is what I came up with:
Leslie Parke, “About This Table”, oil on canvas
Leslie Parke, “All that Glitters”, oil on linen
Leslie Parke, “Still Life with High Heels”, oil on linen
So, what did I learn? I tend not to work with high key colors. I am more interested in the light of a particular moment. I like to try to paint the unpaintable — things that glitter, shine and reflect light; things that are transparent or translucent. For me, I think that light is a stronger draw than color. With Janet Fish as my guide, I learned to be fearless in my choice of objects and to see the objects for the visual qualities they brought to the painting, not for their “meaning”. The lessons of these paintings have served me well. I have been able to bring more of me to my new still lifes and less of Janet. And as I was able to distinguish what it was about her paintings that really resonated with me, I was able to distill that which was mine and find more of that in the world to paint.
Leslie Parke, “Avalanche”, oil on linen
Leslie Parke, “Compacted”, oil on linen
Leslie Parke, “Recycled Bottles”, oil on linen
One final note: I have a friend, Lynn, who is a very close friend of Janet’s and one day she asked me if I would like to go to our favorite import store in Rutland with Janet. Lynn and I had been often to this store and one time I bought a pair of Indonesian dolls that seemed very Fishesque to me. I tried painting them, but they resisted me. Something about them was too “Fishy”. When we were at the store I found another set of these dolls and I showed them to Janet. I told her that I thought she might like them. She did.
Janet Fish, “Sequins”, detail
Books of Interest:
Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at IndieBound.org