We aren't just eyes, we have memories, feelings. Emotional content is what makes life whole, and a lot of abstraction has no connection with people...with the way they are. People relate to things, objects. An enthusiastic young student once asked Hofmann, 'What's the use of the painting of the past, now that we have abstraction?' Hofmann replied that he was not teaching abstraction for itself alone, but was using it as a means to not get 'stuck' in subject matter. He also believed that the greatest artists always possessed an intuitive spatial sense that made their work stronger.
- Mark Adams
The Monumentality of the Commonplace: The Watercolors of Mark Adams
By Robert Flynn Johnson
The message inherent in Mark Adams's disarmingly beautiful watercolors is one of those self-evident propositions that reveal themselves in their full profundity only after lifetime of experience and discipline. In these works Adams succeeds, through mastery of selection, composition, color, and draughtsmanship, in elevating objects and scenes from our everyday existence into works of art that resonate in our consciousness.
This elevation of the ordinary is nothing new in art. Two of Albrecht Durer's most beautiful creations were watercolors of a clump of earth and a hare. A masterful etching by Rembrandt depicts a single seashell. Chardin was at his best when he simply painted what was sitting on his breakfast table. Cézanne, Demuth, and Morandi are other examples of artists who chose to make monumental works of art through depiction of the commonplace.
The present era is a period that has been uncommonly accepting of innovation and experiment in the visual arts. It has also seen - and tolerated - much gimmickry and failure. Mark Adams's art, going counter to this current, reflects the disciplined sensibility of a much more difficult choice. His work shines like a beacon of reason in the currently confused realm of contemporary aesthetics.
It was only in 1975 that Mark Adams seriously turned to watercolors as a major element of his art, at the end of a long and exhausting five-year period during which his major stained-glass commissions for San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El and Saint Thomas More Catholic Church were conceived, planned, and executed. The artist had invested his greatest creative energy and excitement on these projects early in their execution. Subsequently, Adams spent the majority of the time as an "artistic architect," making sure the enlarged designs retained the feeling of the original sketches, and that the projects were executed according to specifications. He recalled that during these long complicated projects he felt increasingly distant from the relative energy that he wished to experience. The watercolor medium offered him an immediate resolution to his discontent. He recalls, It was a need to do something very small, personal, intimate, that I did all the way through myself, that I had complete control of. If it succeeded it was my accomplishment, if it failed it was my fault, but I had absolute control...I was not hindered by decisions I made three months ago in the glass that I chose…I'm not saying these things because any of this happened; there is a certain logical progression when you make decisions in a continuum…but with the watercolors there was a marvelous freedom and it was really my own enjoyment; you didn't have to go into a building to have the work of art be competed. This is one of the things about stained glass; you never know what it looks like until the entire job is finished and installed and then it's really too late to do anything major about it.
Adams had experimented with watercolors since his student days, but until the mid-1970s had been disappointed with the results. His early understanding of the medium was the tradition exemplified by the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, with emphasis on exposed portions of white paper, fluid applications of wash, risk, accidental effects, and surface sparkle. Adams knew the work of several artists successfully working in this watercolor style at the time: George Ball, Daniel Mendelowitz, George Post, and Dong Kingman, Try as he might, Adams found that he was not attuned to this reliance on energy and the fortuitous over control and substance, and chose not to pursue watercolor seriously at that time.
During a trip to England in the 1970s, however, Adams's curiosity in the medium was revived. While there he saw the amateur watercolors done by an uncle of his wife, Beth Van Hoesen. Although not accomplished, they were executed in the English nineteenth-century tradition of covering the whole surface of the paper with wash. This refined yet traditional technique, and the emphasis on finish, inspired Adams to reevaluate his thinking concerning the medium.
When he finally began to work seriously in watercolor in the mid-1970s, he experienced a number of failures. Adams remembers them: The progression of trying to work out my watercolor technique? Those are mostly in my files...drawers of unsuccessful watercolors. They are kept to learn from. I have had unsuccessful watercolors along the way, it wasn't that they all came in the first year until I suddenly hit it. It should be emphasized that the vast majority of these unsuccessful works were, in the artist's opinion, failures of technique, not subject, composition, or color. Watercolor is an unforgiving medium that allows for few errors and resists correction. An illustration of this fact is the story told of a woman who once asked Edgar Degas what sort of watercolor set should she buy her son. Reflecting on the difficult nature of the medium, he replied that it would be safer to buy the child a revolver!
The single most arresting quality in the watercolors of Mark Adams is his consistently superb use of washes in constructing the background, objects, and luminous atmosphere in his works. The artist comments: I had always been intrigued with the idea of wash...It was always a challenge to put down a graded wash either from one value to another or one color to another…I am interested in light and the effect of light and transparence. All these things somehow seem to work very well in watercolor. You can put down a wash and suddenly there is the whole surface illuminated...it's magic. Adams's emphasis on clarity in the carefully controlled use of washes is not to draw attention to his technique. Rather it is an attempt to de-emphasize the means of execution, leaving one to concentrate on the work of art itself. He explains: The reason for perfecting the wash is not for the technique itself. It's simply so that the words used to say something don't stand in the way of what you're trying to say. To a great degree Adams has succeeded.
Without question, there is a strong visual connection between Adams's stained-glass windows, tapestries and his watercolors. This is most clearly seen in his emphasis of contour, pattern and the 'cloisonné' coloration of distinct sections of his subject matter. Although confident use of bright, often starling color is a trademark of Mark Adams's art, watercolors gave him the opportunity to work in more restrained hues. The artist comments: In relation to work in stained glass and tapestry, both these media tend to require strong color and so for years I really had no place to put my subtlety or sense of nuance. That's why it all sort of poured out in my watercolors and why there are lots of muted colors as well as occasional red or orange backgrounds.
In his still lifes, Adams endeavors to be faithful to a realistic depiction of the shape and color of the object. He displays pronounced artistic discretion in his choice of background color and complexity of shadow configuration. The choice of a dark background in Magnolia in Glass, for example, has given the work a mysterious quality, while the pink-orange background in Bowl of Borsch combines with the red of the soup to create a lively color pattern. Likewise the complexity of the dual shadows of Red Shoes is almost as strong a visual component in the picture as the shoes themselves, while the absence of reflections in the spare Lily in Shadow allows for unbroken concentration on the elegant structure of the plant itself.
Mark Adam's watercolors reveal a duality of perception about the nature of the objects or landscapes he depicts. They are simultaneously accurate and recognizable renderings of ordinary objects or views, but they are also formalistic arrangements of carefully composed shapes seen as if for the first time. A work such as Beam Scarp is simply a depiction of a piece of wood, but in Adams's watercolor it also takes on the refined elegance of a Brancusi sculpture.
Adams's scrutiny of his subjects reveals their quintessential structure through renderings that are free from connotations of time and place. Seldom do any of the objects he depicts rest on any delineated plane; instead the powerful geometries of form, reflection and shadow establish not only the planes of the image depicted, but also the space in which they repost and which contains them. A work such as Father's Hat is in fact a personal reflection by the artist concerning his father, a volunteer fire chief. But Adams does not impose sentiment or temporality on the image. A viewer might see in the fold-trimmed hat a symbol of authority with both positive and negative connotations. But in the first and last analysis, the strength of the depiction lies in the artist's uncanny ability to capture the essence of the hat.
It is interesting that Adams has attempted only about twelve watercolors of figures over the years, and has exhibited only one, Self Portrait. Most of hiss watercolors are about people- what they wear, what they eat, where they go - but the people themselves are absent.
The premeditated spatial loneliness in Adam's still lifes and landscapes is an admirable trait of his art. A still life watercolor by Andrew Wyeth, for example, might contain a duck decoy upon a weathered table next to a basket of ripe apples, with a background view through a window of snow falling - elements that combine to build a safe, comfortable visual narrative. This does not occur in Adams's watercolors. The isolated nature of his scrutiny creates an undercurrent of disquiet despite the innocuous nature of many of his subjects and the lush colors he often employs. Adams speaks of this mood: One thing about this solitary image in my work; there is a thing that I've seen in other painters' work that excites me very much, it's that kind of tremulous stillness that you can almost feel. When asked what artists he was referring to, his unexpected reply was. Some Chardin has this...a water jar with a couple of flowers in a wall painting in Pompeii...elements of Piero della Francesca, even some of his people who really don't seem alive in the sense of being real people. I guess you would call them mystical…there is a quietness, a time, a space that is all theirs...it's all very realistic in a way but it's also very unreal...You're aware of standing in the presence of something more than what is ostensibly is.
Mark Adams, by Robert Flynn Johnson, Paul Mills and Lorna Price, foreword by Wayne Thiebaud, Chronical Books and John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco CA, 1985
Born in Fort Plains, NY, Adams began his training in art at Syracuse University but left part way through to study with Hans Hoffman. He then continued on at Columbia University and finally with Jean Lurçat in Aubusson, France at the Ecole Nationale d’Art Decoratif.
Adams began his early career as a tapestry and stained-glass designer where he designed the windows for Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco's largest synagogue, in Presidio Heights. He also did the stained glass for Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Nob Hill. His tapestry works can be found locally at the de Young Museum and at San Francisco International Airport. Later in life he turned away from tapestry and stained glass as his art came to its fullest expression and he turned to using watercolors as his primary medium. Adams' watercolor style often involved taking everyday objects--a tie, a bowl of jello--and portraying them with new meaning through a series of vivid, delicate, and translucent color washes.
Mark Adams married Beth Van Hoesen, also an artist , and they lived and worked in their restored firehouse in San Francisco.
born 1925 Fort Plains NY
died 2006 San Francisco CA
public collections1943-45 Syracuse University NY1945-47 Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Arts1947 Columbia University NY1955 Ecolé Nationale d'Art Decoratif Aubusson, France
Library of Congress, Washington DCCalifornia Palace of the Legion of Honor, San FranciscoM.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CANational Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington DCOakland Museum of CaliforniaRacine Art Museum, WISan Diego Museum of Art, CASan Francisco Museum of Art, CAStanford University, Palo Alto, CASyracuse University, NYUniversity of California, Davis
Mark Adams, Catalogue Raisonné of Tapestries
Stanford University Libraries, CA
The artist Mark Adams seemed to move effortlessly from painting and printmaking to stained glass and fibers throughout a career that spanned the second half of the twentieth century. Although well known across the United States for his works on paper, Adams is also recognized in California as an accomplished designer of stained glass architectural commissions for public sites and private homes in the region. However, when Adams, the painter, was exposed to textiles, he became intensely committed to the medium. He began designing tapestries in the 1950s, creating fiber works throughout this professional career into the early 1990s. Although Adams is mow most frequently acknowledged for his watercolors, this exhibition focuses on his work in textiles, placing the medium squarely at the center of his aesthetic development and career.
Tapestry can be a challenging medium to master. When painters work with weaving studios the results are not always a guaranteed success. An artist cannot set out assuming that every painted composition can simply be used as the basis for the creation of an identical fiber sibling. While these two media have to be mounted on the wall and share common elements of visual design, there are ways in which they diverge. Woven wool cannot duplicate the way light catches the surface of brushwork in oil paint. At the same time, the saturation of color in dyed wool and the way fiber catches captures and holds light provide the surfaces of these works with a different kind of visual excitement along with a three-dimensional surface. Most importantly, weaving provides a unique shading effect that can be used to depict dimensional objects that renders them differently than in a painted composition.
Adams's work with Jean Lurçat in the 1950s introduced him to Lurçat’s vision that tapestry was no longer intended to imitate paintings, but to be a visual art form in its own right. Lurçat, a master designer, led the revival of twentieth century tapestry in France. Adams was an accomplished colorist and designer whether he was composing a watercolor painting or a textile. Adams disp0layed a love of everyday subject matter and an interest in a visually spare realism that was strongly influenced by his initial training in abstraction. He also studied the work of Henri Matisse and the great painter’s influence can be seen in Adams visual arrangements and subtle, yet rich color sense. Working in watercolor provided Adams with a keen sense of the fine changes in value and shading employed to control color in this medium. His knowledge of printmaking also acquainted Adams with a complex multi-step process in which the application of color and line in the finished work must be well thought-out and carefully orchestrated at each stage of the creation. These experiences became essential tools when planning his fiber compositions where color and form are not created as directly as they are in painting.
By choosing non-precious objects – bowls, a few flowers in a glass jar, or something as prosaic ad cabbage leaves – Adams elevates the everyday so the the viewer begins to better appreciate the beauty in the things with which we are constantly in contact, but often overlook. His landscape subjects focus on conventionally beautiful aspects of nature that are readily available to all – sunsets, isolated images of flowers, a pond or stream. In these choices he suggests that a simple beauty, one that has an almost spiritual purity, is readily available for all to see and touch if we only take the time to notice. In his latest watercolors, this message is communicated in a relatively small-scale that is well suited for residential spaces. Tapestry provided Adams with a much larger format in which to present his message as he could produce works that range from five to 12 feet in width. Many of his large textiles are installed in public locations, including places of worship, corporate offices, train stations, and airports, allowing the artist to communicate with large numbers of people outside the somewhat rarified settings of museums and galleries.
The inclusion of Adams’s design cartoons alongside their respective tapestries is a welcome addition to this exhibition. These painted and collaged paper compositions were the artist’s visual plan for his weaving and were created in the same size as he intended for the competed textile. Exhibiting these drawings provides a glimpse into Adams’s artist working methods and his thought process. Akin to paint-by-number kits, some of the exhibited pieces bear his notations for the specific colored yarns needed to capture the gradient shadings he desired. In other design cartoons, the viewer can see how Adams changed his thoughts, cutting images out of the arrangement and collaging new visual elements onto the painted and drawn sections. In one, it is clear that Adams has added paper to the edges of his original painting to extend the width of the final composition. The design cartoons function as a glimpse into Adams’s mental sketchbook as he worked out visual details for the work. Comparing the paper model with the finished textile also attests to Adam’s perseverance in seeing his vision achieved and is a testament to the thorough dedication of the weavers who worked diligently to maintain the fidelity of his vision in their studios.
As a painter who designed textiles but did not create them himself, Adams was identified with the painting field of the late-twentieth century rather than the contemporary fiber art field in which crafts artists experienced with materials and techniques to produce new and unusual sculptural forms. Today, some fiber artists are again examining the possibilities of bringing their individual knowledge to ateliers and merging their solo studio techniques with large-sale individual applications in which the individual artist is not always the sole creator of the artwork. In this light, we can take a fresh look at Adams’s work. By ranging back and forth between painting and tapestry, his work in both media benefitted as the experience in one infused and informed his work in the other. This exhibition provides an opportunity to revisit the importance of textiles to this artist’s career and reevaluate the effect Adams’s tapestries can have on the contemporary fibers field. There are lessons here to be earned by the casual viewer and the artist alike. We welcome the opportunity this exhibition provides to do so.
Executive Director and Curator of Collections
Racine Art Museum, WI
Mark Adams Catalogue Raisonné of Tapestries. essays by Melissa Leventon and Paul Chadbourne Mills, Stanford University Libraries, Palo Alto, CA, 2013.
Mark Adams. Robert Flynn Johnson, Paul Mills and Lorna Price, foreword by Wayne Thiebaud, Chronicle Books and John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 1985. New Price $75. plus shipping
Mark Adams: A Way With Color. Essay by Lorna Price, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1995. New Price $65. Plus shipping
Mark Adams: Watercolors. introduction by Tatem Webb Read, John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, 2007. New Price $15. plus shipping
Mark Adams: Translation of Light. Pamphlet with essays by Joseph Goldyne and Diane Roby. Iowa State University Brunnier Art Museum, 2010. Excellent condition. price $5. (3 copies available)