Meet Walter Burt Adams
Influenced by American painters Edward Hopper and James McNeill Whistler, Walter Burt Adams combined an unusual degree of realism and balance in his work, achieving both warmth and isolation in his images of his beloved hometown, Evanston Illinois. Adams exhibited his paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1936 through 1938, and at the Art Institute of Chicago's annual Artists of Chicago and Vicinity Exhibition twenty times from 1930 through 1973. This retrospective exhibition, the first since 1973, is co-sponsored by the Evanston Historical Society and Evanston Public Library and brings together twenty-four paintings from public and private collections.
Walter Burt Adams was born on July 6, 1903 in Kenosha Wisconsin, and raised in Fargo, North Dakota where he attended high school. His artistic career began in the eighth grade with a correspondence school cartooning class. His family moved to Evanston in September 1931 at the time of his brother Wesley's enrollment at Northwestern University. After high school, Adams financed his years as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago with odd jobs and a stint as art editor of the United States Egg and Poultry Magazine, doing cover designs, cartoons and illustrations.
In 1936 Adams was commissioned to paint sixteen Evanston scenes for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program. He completed one painting a month for the sum of $100. For the WPA, Adams claimed he painted eight "near masterpieces" and eight "good pictures". The whereabouts of these WPA paintings are unknown.
Adams supported himself by running an artist supply store, first located at 1615 Maple Avenue and later moved to 943 Chicago Avenue, the present site of the Children's Room of the South Branch of the Evanston Public Library. In addition to being a place to showcase his paintings, the store allowed him to paint in the mornings and run the business in the afternoons. Since Adams didn't have an automobile, many of his paintings, including several in this exhibit, depict scenes from the neighborhood surrounding the store.
In his store, a painting titled Old Northwestern University Heating Plant caught the eye of Joseph Levy, Jr., the owner of an auto dealership near Adams' store. When Levy told Adams that he liked the painting and wished to purchase it because it reminded him of his alma mater, Adams told him that was an insufficient reason for him to sell the painting to Levy. Levy boned up on texture, color and other ingredients of paintings and tried to buy it again. "You're a fraud", Adams told Levy, "but you went to so much trouble you can have it!"
Adams' business, "Walter Burt Adams Artists' Supplies", wasn't listed in the Evanston phone book because Adams didn't have a phone. "The phone company is just like the government", Adams said, "except you don't have to take the phone company." His dealings with the phone company began and ended in 1938 when he took over a storefront with a phone. The phone company wanted him to pay a deposit on the phone but he refused, so the phone was removed. Adams said, "I told the phone company not to run my business, and I would not run theirs. I haven't had a phone since, and it has been a great relief."
Posted in his store along with notices for art classes and exhibits was a sign stating his policy on giving discounts to customers. It read: "If you must have further discount, kindly go elsewhere, only be sure that you are not paying more elsewhere (with discount) than here without discount. We are fed up with unpleasant situations created by demands for discounts after we have already given you one. Sorry, we will just have to struggle on without you."
The store closed in the fall of 1974 soon after a new landlord sent Adams a form letter. Adams had a high opinion of his work and said he closed his business because "a fresh dealer in real estate addressed a nationally recognized artist as 'Dear Tenant'." Adams moved to Belen, New Mexico in May 1977 and lived there until his death on October 1, 1990.
Although he was an excellent portraitist, Adams is primarily known for his austere urban streetscapes. Adams often labored over paintings for many years, and his views of buildings and viaducts could take over twenty sittings. The painting Main Street Evanston was completed over a period of sixty-four mornings from the Chicago and North Western Railroad platform south of Main Street. Explaining why he avoided using people as models, Adams said "I've always maintained that models are too damned expensive – it takes so long to paint that I can go broke before I finish a painting" and "landscapes don't say something is wrong with the nose!"