Adams the Artist
Over the years, many anecdotal pieces have appeared about Walter Burt Adams as a person, artist and even businessman. Very few critics have discussed his artistic style and where he fits in to American Art History.
As the personal stories about him reveal, Adams was fiercely independent. This quality extended into his painting. His work is not easily characterized, and though he developed a "mature" style, he frequently floated back and forth between styles, as if unwilling to commit fully to one or another. He even developed a unique method of dating his paintings. On both sides of his signature he would place a series of lines. The lines to the left of his name indicated the decade while those to the right indicated the year. For example, five hatch marks to the left and three to the right would be 1953.
Adams was passionate about painting and he loved Evanston, particularly certain buildings and places, which he portrayed numerous times within his oeuvre. These corners, streetscapes and buildings are frequently familiar without being obvious. The viewer recognizes the scene but may or may not be able to place it. The highly realistic nature of his work contributes to this familiarity. Many of his paintings appear almost super-real, but upon close inspection, the paintings are loosely rendered - details are not filled in, faces are blank, storefront signs have no letters.
Adams' witty sense is already visible in the 1933 Self-Portrait, the earliest painting in the exhibit. The painting is clearly signed, titled and dated on the spine of a book in the center, right portion of the work; all other book titles are unreadable. The painting is tightly rendered and differs in many ways from most other works in the exhibit. The work appears like a snapshot; the artist looks out at the viewer in a serious manner, and along the edge we see a small portion of a lampshade that both sheds an eerie light and cuts into the composition in an unusual way.
Throughout his career, Adams used compositional devices to give his viewers interesting and unexpected viewpoints. Frequently, he used street signs, streetlights and even the edge of a building to draw the viewer into the composition from an alternate viewpoint. Examples of these devices appear in Adams' two versions of the intersection of Dempster Street and Chicago Avenue. The 1936 version of Chicago and Dempster is a scene typical in 1930s midwestern art. This is the time when the regionalists, such as Grant Wood and John Stuart Currey, were creating nostalgic paintings of rural farm scenes, which made viewers yearn for "days gone by." Not surprisingly, Adams worked in the typical regional style. The corner he chooses in the painting is very recognizable, even today. The scene is both thematically pleasant and aesthetically pleasing. The woman in the foreground is attractive but ordinary, and captures our interest without drawing us far from the actual subject, the streetscape. An obvious contrast to this work is the 1972 version of the same street corner, a piece more typical of his mature style. Here he uses a street sign to cut off the foreground of the painting. The faces of the people in the paintings are no longer distinguishable, and the nostalgia is gone from the work.
Adams found subject matter in unusual places, in part because he was able to see beauty and character where others saw the commonplace. The Old Northwestern University Heating Plant, from 1945, is one such example. Here he selects an industrial scene and paints it in a painstaking and attractive manner. Note the two workers on top of the building; they simply blend into architectural elements within the scene. Adams also found beauty in the ordinary or mundane aspects of everyday life. The Garden Tree in the Back of "943," 1966, is an example of this type of work. The piece is small and has a gem-like quality. It is a beautifully painted depiction of the alley behind his storefront at 943 Chicago Avenue. He must have seen this area several times a day, yet its attractiveness was not diminished by daily viewings. The tree, which according to the title is the subject of the work, is rendered in a loose, painterly fashion. We also see a typical Adams device in his rendering of the staircase, which appears to lead nowhere because we do not see the entire staircase. Perhaps this is a metaphor; perhaps just the way it appeared to him that day.
One of the most individual paintings in the exhibit is Evanston Evening, 1937, a stunning view of Chicago Avenue at night. Only window lights and one streetlight illuminate the scene. The sky is an exquisite shade of blue, which really makes this painting stand out from the other works in the exhibit. Like most of Adams' settings, the street scene is recognizable, adding comfort to beauty. The work is subtly painted, the bricks of the street simply hinted at through a series of economically drawn lines.
If Evanston Evening looks different from the other paintings in the exhibit, then Flash Flood, 1951-1976, looks downright foreign. Here we see a canvas that was worked and re-worked over a period of 25 years. It shows the influence (or at least knowledge of) several artists, including Thomas Hart Benton, the regionalist artist, who is referenced in the highly angular forms of the figures. This technique was avant-garde in the 1930s, but retro in the 1950s and certainly in the 1970s, when the work was completed. The surrealist aspects, unusual fires and pointed rocks, clearly reference Peter Blume's 1944-1948 masterpiece The Rock, which Adams would likely have seen after it was accessioned by Art Institute of Chicago in 1956. The theme and context of Flash Flood reference the flood portion of Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. In Michelangelo's work people try futilely to escape the flood by climbing to higher ground, just as we see here in Adams' painting. These references clearly demonstrate Adams' familiarity with a wide range of art history, but the meaning of the painting is still unclear. The ambiguity of the work leaves the viewer uncomfortable. There is desperation in the subjects' faces and many unanswered questions, such as where the fires are coming from, and what they have to do with the flood. The raging waters seem incidental, yet the fear is palpable, revealed through the faces rather than the actual flood. At one time, there was a hand in the upper right corner of the painting, which Adams later painted out. The hand certainly represented a means of escape or at least hope, heightening the ambiguity. Why did he remove it? Was it perhaps a time of personal desperation?
Flash Flood was completed in 1976, the same year as the later of the two self-portraits in the exhibit. In Self-Portrait, 1976, Adams painted himself within a painting, framed on a table surrounded by everyday symbols of his life: pens, paintbrushes, coins, and an apple. We also see a portion of an easel, with a frame on it - also a symbol. Adams shows himself as just another painting, just another symbol. He gazes at the viewer as a man who "has seen it all." His expression is very matter-of-fact, in contrast to the introspective self-portrait of 1933.
Walter Burt Adams depicted his subjects with great passion. The opportunity to see so many significant works of art by him, side by side, is a special treat and a unique chance to carefully view the breadth of his life's work. Within this retrospective, we learn a lot about Adams, but as with many important artists, we are also left with many questions.
Eden Juron Pearlman