Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Memoriam: James Adley (1931-2015)

James Adley, 1995.  (Photo: © Patrick T. Power. Used by permission.)

Last month, my undergrad painting instructor and mentor James Adley died at age 83. As I wrote four years ago in my blogpost on his 2011 show at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, which I co-curated with Robert Schefman, I first met Jim at Michigan State in the early 1970s. A student of Clyfford Still, he was the first true artist I got to know up close and personal.

My first visit to Jim's studio, which at the time was in an upstairs loft in downtown Williamston, completely blew me away, as he unrolled canvas after canvas, each one of more enormous proportions than one before, all of them covered with graceful parabolas and striations of color, layered atop one another so that pictorial space modulated with the trace of painterly event. I distinctly remember one of deep purple and black pigment mixed with Rhoplex, built up in sedimentations of gesture, made I later found out by using floor squeegees, push brooms, and garden rakes as painting implements. A master colorist, Jim was just as happy using castoff commercial house paint, gotten from the "mistakes" made by mixers at the nearby hardware store, as the best Winsor & Newton acrylics. He once told me that ultimately all the colors are related to one another; the trick is simply to put them together the right way.

Jim was a serious devotee of music, and many of our conversations were about music as much as art. Like Kandinsky and a number of other abstract artists, particularly of the Modernist persuasion, compositional strategies and other musical inspirations factored into Jim's work. Many of his paintings were titled in a manner similar to musical compositions—the "Bagatelle" series of the 1980s, for example, and the many paintings referencing works by modern British composers, such as Sir Michael Tippett and Vaughn Williams. For a period, he used John Cage's aleatory methods to dictate his painterly decisions. (Jim also pointed out that Mozart did something similar, getting up in the morning and throwing dice to determine what type of composition he would write that day and then throwing dice again to determine the number and types of instruments.) The composer I think of most in relation to Jim is Gustave Mahler, whose sprawling symphonies marked the transition from late Romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century to Modernism early in the twentieth. Similarly, Jim's expansive canvases—the triptych I39A-C: Prelude, Transition, Finale (1988-89), measures 11 feet high and 100 feet wide—register the limits of Modernist easel painting and its ambitions of achieving utopian fields of pure presence.

The large scale and subtle modulations of form and color of Jim's paintings made them extremely difficult to capture photographically, one of the fall outs being to severely limit his ability to market himself. His uncompromising dedication to grand proportion and pure abstraction, combined with diffidence as it pertains to the "artist's hustle," didn't help much either. There were really no local galleries that could do justice to the work in part due to its scale, although several—Cantor/Lemberg when it was in Birmingham, Christine Schefman when she had her own space on Eton Street, and Sharon Zimmerman when she ran Detroit Artists Market—to their credit tried. And as time wore on, along with the rise of Postmodernism, there was less and less interest in Jim's kind of work, isolating him further, though he kept on painting away. Most of Jim's paintings, and in particular many of the best ones, have never been seen outside his studio and I feel extremely privileged to have been one of the few so blessed with having had the experience on many occasions over the past four decades.

He wasn't completely overlooked, however. He did receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. I was also able to get a review of his stunning exhibition at the Muskegon Museum published in the October 1989 issue of Artforum; although, I got in a bit of trouble for it. According to the reviews editor, Scott Gutterman, one of the Italian editors of Artforum had asked where the hell Muskegon was. I responded to Scott: "It's where the art was." Still, he cautioned, Artforum chronicles activity originating from recognized world "art centers" and I needed to pay attention to that. I was reminded of something Jim once said that if Jackson Pollock had stayed in Cody, Wyoming, no one would have ever known who he was. (Certainly, the evidence from research in the sociology of art bears that out. And more distressingly for me in Jim's case, Pierre-Michel Menger's empirical research on the unequal distribution of material rewards and recognition in the arts suggesting that artists who are unknown at the time of their deaths are overwhelmingly doomed to forever remain obscure. Menger's first monograph in English, The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement Under Uncertainty, published last year by Harvard University Press, is an essential, if sobering, read. And I have worried in recent years as to what will happen to the trove of Jim's paintings currently rolled up in storage in a basement in mid-Michigan. This is a problem not for only Jim but for many artists who have left estates largely comprised of their work.)

The sculptor and Jim's friend from their early days in London, William Tucker, wrote a heartfelt tribute titled "Grand Symphonic Paintings" published in the online magazine Art Critical. Another written by British painter James Faure Walker was published in The Guardian. Both are worth checking out.
Installation view at the Muskegon Museum of Transition, 1988-1998 (Acrylic on canvas, 120" x 744").
James Adley, Carmine, 2007 (Acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36").
Even in his final months in a nursing home, Jim kept painting. Below is a video of a talk he gave to residents about his current work. On the one hand, it's difficult to see him all contorted and frail—in his prime he stood nearly six-and-a-half feet tall with a penetrating gaze as the above portrait of him by Patrick T. Power testifies. But on the other hand, there is the appreciation of the fact that he kept working literally almost to his dying day. There is a small beauty in the video at 16:50, a departure, actually, from his more typical color field work.

Jim's wife Alison McMaugh was also a fine painter. She died of ovarian cancer in 2005. They are survived by their son Raphael Adley, who lives in Lansing. It was my great privilege to have known both Jim and Alison, whose work I also wrote about for Art & Australia among other publications. It is my sincere hope that against all odds, both will finally get their due in times to come.

A memorial service for James Adley will be held on Sunday, May 31, 2:00 p.m. in Gallery 114, Kresge Art Center, at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Click here for a map.


YouTube video of Jim's memorial held at Kresge Art Center, MSU, East Lansing: