Chris Murtha on Alice Adams

“The wall,” Alice Adams declared in 1972, “is a non-subject.” Yet, at the time, she was producing a series of latex casts of her studio walls, including Bowery Wall, 1970, the centerpiece of this exhibition. The surfaces, structures, and substrates of walls were very much her subject, and she sought to challenge their supposed nullity. Adams began her career as a weaver and has spent the past several decades realizing large-scale, site-specific projects in the public realm. This presentation, her first solo show in New York in more than two decades, focused on a transitional period between 1964 and 1974, during which she used common construction materials to engage with the more private terrain of her studio. The assembled sculptures and drawings formed a kind of portrait of the artist’s workspace at 246 Bowery in Manhattan, just around the corner from this show at Zürcher Gallery, but from another era.

After a yearlong apprenticeship studying tapestry making in Aubusson, France, Adams maintained a successful weaving practice through the early 1960s. Anticipating her interest in undergirding structures, she worked from the reverse of her tapestries to emphasize the loose, tangled threads that typically go unseen. By 1964, she was applying her command of weaving to an array of industrial “fibers,” including telephone wire, steel cable, and chain-link fencing. Positioning Adams within the vanguard of “soft” or “anti-form” sculpture, Lucy Lippard included three of her woven objects in the group show “Eccentric Abstraction” at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1966. Two of those works appeared at Zürcher in intriguing variations that demonstrate the pliability of her sculptures. (As seen in a vintage installation shot of the Fischbach exhibition, the nestled sleeves of woven aluminum wire and chain-link fencing in Big Aluminum, 1965, were slung provocatively from the ceiling.) In a new iteration here, the chain-link segment alone lay twisted on the floor—a molted skin, deflated yet still commanding. Also on view was Fluorescent Structure, 1964, a stout, basketlike sculpture woven from rusted-steel cable, which Adams repurposed, entwining it with a freestanding roll of chain-link fencing to produce 22 Tangle, 1968. The two forms are so thoroughly conjoined that the cable piece seems to organically inhabit the pillar of chain link, like a tree grown through fencing.

Adams sourced materials from local hardware stores and lumberyards (if she couldn’t salvage them from the streets), and often used them as they were intended. For instance, she employed wooden laths, plaster, and vinyl tiles to build Wall and Floor, 1967. The sculpture, a cross-section that resembles Gordon Matta-Clark’s building extractions, was her ramshackle tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to the slick, hard-edge Minimalism of the time—a matter-of-fact “primary structure.” Unfortunately, the object appears to be a one-off, though her practice continued to shift toward the architectural when she relocated her studio to the Bowery. The artist’s output from this period embodied the raw physical character of her new work environs. She jettisoned the plaster but continued to use laths to create hollow slatted towers, such as Wooden Column, 1973, and Volume, 1974. These sculptures, like her early tapestries, make visible what is usually hidden and evoke the “unfinished” ancillary spaces of basements and attics. Vessels for our imagination to inhabit, they stand in their respective corners, mysterious and proud but also aloof—a little unused to the spotlight.

Though she was included in “Eccentric Abstraction” and the 1973 Whitney Biennial, Adams didn’t receive as much attention as her male peers and was largely ignored by commercial galleries. Many of the works on view debuted at 55 Mercer, an artist-run cooperative gallery that she cofounded. A longtime New Yorker, she understood the struggle to find places to live, create, and exhibit in, and the politics of housing infused her art (she dedicated one of her later site-specific works—a heavily buttressed retaining wall—to her neighbors and allies in a landlord dispute). Still, the worn-down surfaces and skeletal frameworks of buildings were what truly spoke to her. In a 1975 review in these pages, critic Alan Moore quoted Adams on her inspiration: “I like the eloquence of these old loft spaces with their pitted walls and the sense of the wood lath murmuring underneath.” Her sculptures express her intimacy with the bones of aging buildings and attempt, at least, to echo their murmurings.

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