Friday, February 18, 2011

James Adley at 80

James Adley, Violet Gate, 2007. Acrylic on paper (Image courtesy of the artist.)

On Friday, February 18, the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center is presenting an exhibition of recent work by former Michigan State University art professor James Adley. The show includes works on canvas and paper completed over the past four years. My colleague at College for Creative Studies, Foundations Department Chair Robert Schefman, and I curated the show. While it takes up the entire Robinson Gallery, it represents just a taste of Adley's work from this period and the merest sliver of his substantial oeuvre, a small fraction of which has ever been seen outside his studio. (Full disclosure: Schefman and I are both MSU BFAs, and Adley was the main professor under which I did my undergrad work. Schefman studied sculpture and though we were there at around the same time I didn't know him then.)

Large, gestural abstractions, Adley's paintings are the kind you don't see too much of anymore, and the kind you never saw a lot of in Detroit, produced locally at least. (The exceptions are Aris Koutroulis, whose constructions of raw canvas held together with pigment always seemed a little contrived, and Ellen Phelan, whose brief encounter with splashy large-scale, shaped canvases in the mid-1980s is still the best work she's ever done to my eye -- lucky the Kresge Foundation, which owns some.) There's a direct line from Adley to the heroic age of postwar American abstraction, aesthetically and biographically. A student of Clyfford Still's, Adley needs about 180 square feet of painting field to really get cooking and happily this show includes a couple of paintings on that scale. In particular is Red Passage (2007), an arc of pigment over a field of rose-stained canvas that starts as an inky blot on the left and skitters across the picture plane, transmuting into shades of red along the way.

The show is filled out with several series of smaller canvases and works on paper where the artist explores gestural motifs that isolate elements, which in earlier work used to get submerged in encrustations of paint applied with trowels, squeegees, push brooms, rakes, and whatever else the artist had lying around the studio that could be pressed into service as a mark-making implement. As a counterpoint, the BBAC show includes a painting from 1973 where the picture plane is filled with alternating vertical bands of white and blue upon which a pattern reminiscent of musical notation unfurls.
James Adley, 2010.

It was only in laying out the show at the BBAC that it hit me why that older painting seemed so familiar. The chair of the art department at MSU had it in his office when I went there as a junior, beret in hand, to beg for money after I lost my entire term's materials budget in a drug deal gone sour. As it turns out, I ended up getting double the allotment I had stupidly lost, though I can't say I recommend it as a way to finance your art.

Adley has been in failing health over the last couple of years and it's likely that this may be the last new work we see from him. But like a lot of late work by great artists (I'm thinking in particular of Beethhoven's String Quartets, William S. Burroughs's triology Cities of the Red Night, Place of the Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, and Picasso's final paintings), Adley's new work isn't a summation or recapitulation but the record of another step in an ongoing journey to open new doors of perception, tempered perhaps with the knowledge that time is running out.

"James Adley at 80: Recent Paintings, Works on Paper" opens at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center Friday, February 18, from 6 - 8 pm. The exhibition runs until March 18. Call 248 644 0866 for information.


  1. Nice article. I too was a student of Prof. Adley's ('69-'73). I've been trying to find an address or email for him. I'd like to tell him how much he's meant to me over the years. Could you help me? He can see some of my work by doing a google image search...rscottenglish. Or check my blog at

    Thanks so much,
    R. Scott English

  2. We may have crossed paths. I was there from 71-75. Robert Schefman was there with you but in sculpture at the time. Will email you separately with details on Jim.

  3. I, too, was a student of Adley's (1989-1993). I'm sorry I missed this exhibition!

    During the summer of 1991, a few classmates and I had the pleasure of traveling with him in London as part of an over seas study program offered through MSU. We visited him in his studio at some point prior to our trip so that he could talk to us about what we would do/artists we would visit. He showed us a few of his paintings which were so enormous they had to be un rolled section by section on the studio floor.

    I'm glad to hear he's still working.

  4. Mr. James Adley is now currently at a nursing home. I met the man only a week ago.(My sister and I volunteer there every week to help out with water coloring) He still has the disire to teach art. (For he taught me quite alot!) Many things had he told me in the two hours I was with him. I am not quite sure if he has devolped parkinsons or not for his hands seemed shakey. He told me about his abstract art, and how he used to teach at MSU. My sister is going to be and art education major and just soaked up his words. I am not an artist, it has never been a huge interest of mine. He seemed very passionate about art. It was so nice to get to know the guy. The painting from above is beautiful. I hope to see more next time I visit Jim.

  5. Wonderful article and wonderful comments. I too studied with Mr. Adley at MSU in '78/'79. I also traveled abroad with him in the summer of '79 where I met John Hoyland a British artist friend of his. I recently met up with Mr. Hoyland here in CT at the Yale Center for British Art where they were having a sort of retrospect of his work. Mr. Adley was instrumental in my getting into grad school at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I too would love to write him and share my deep appreciation for his involvement in my life. Can you send me his address? I am at Thanks!

  6. Jim is an astonishing man.

    Perhaps he will be discovered in 200 years from now for what he really is: a full-fledged peer of the great mid-Century "American" abstract expressionists. Let's hope his work survives until then.

    His wife, too, was a wonderful artist and perhaps his equal.