artworldTributes
Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Grand Symphonic Paintings: James Adley, 1931 to 2015


James Adley, Helios, 1980s, in the collection of Michigan State University

James Adley, Helios, 1980s, in the collection of Michigan State University

James Adley, who died last month at 83, was one of a generation of British artists who came of age when what came to be known as Abstract Expressionism was first shown on a large scale in London. The impact especially of “The New American Painting” at the Tate in 1959 was huge, not only on art students but in inspiring a commitment to art for someone like myself who had not yet made a career choice; or for Jim, at that time working as an accountant, but who dreamed of a life in music. Our idea of modern painting were the works of Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian – generally available in reproduction as well as the occasional Tate show – and of younger artists like Nicolas de Stael and Pierre Soulages whose work could sometimes be seen in the Bond Street galleries. None of these pictures could have prepared us for the impact of the 1958 Tate show.

The exhibition included works by 17 artists — Pollock, Still, Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell — all the big names, and some lesser ones, but not Reinhardt and I think Hofmann. These paintings were vast, completely occupied one’s field of vision, yet seemed to address themselves to the individual viewer: public in scale but personal, even intimate in address. The surfaces, the paint handling, seemed raw, physical, not cooked up, challenging the eyes, even the body. There was no distance in this work, its drama and immediacy seemed unlike anything in art since Caravaggio. No doubt I exaggerate the radical nature of these paintings because of their effect on me and other young artists such as Bert Irvin (who also died recently) and Basil Beattie. And on Jim Adley, who I didn’t meet until I came to the US in the late ‘70s. Every young artist has to be excited by the heroes of a previous generation. But there was something about the Tate exhibition, reinforced by individual shows at the Whitechapel Gallery of Pollock, Rothko, and others, that had an immediate and dramatic effect on British art. By contrast Abstract Expressionism had already been absorbed in New York; its influence was dominating the more progressive American art schools. American students I knew, like Ron Kitaj and Phillip Morsburger, chose to use their GI Bill benefits to study at the very traditional Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford to get away from it

As a child Jim experienced the worst of the Blitz in London, and an almost as traumatic evacuation to the country, while his parents stayed on amid the destruction. He found refuge in music, took violin lessons and immersed himself in the study of classical music, which remained a lifelong passion and about which he was extremely knowledgeable. After leaving school he did his compulsory National Service in the RAF, where his skill with numbers earned him a posting to an experimental rocket program in North Wales. Later in life, he would describe the excitement of seeing the night lit up by the explosions and vapor trails of the weapons being tested, and how, looking back, that was the first intimation of an art that could fill the sky (or at least the visual field). After the Royal Air Force, he enrolled in an accountancy program and was soon earning a living that way. He may already have been doing some painting on the side, but music was his main preoccupation (And both music and numbers, in the suggestion of horizontal musical scores, or of mathematical grids or matrices, continued to haunt his painting throughout his career). So, after a few years making a living in the real world, he happened on the exhibition at the Tate. Of all the work there, the strongest, starkest, most dramatic impact was that of Clyfford Still. That was Jim’s experience, and it was mine, too. Not only the paintings themselves, but the memorable rhetoric of the words in his catalog statement proclaiming a new era in art, free of “outworn myths and contemporary alibis.”

James Adley with his 50 foot painting, Transition, 1988-98, c.1998. Photo: Norbert Freese

James Adley with his 50 foot painting, Transition, 1988-98, c.1998. Photo: Norbert Freese

At the first opportunity Jim resigned his job as an accountant for the Nestlé corporation, and enrolled first at City and Guilds for the year 1959, then at the Chelsea School of Art from 1960-63. However high his ambition, he seems to have been determined to start from the ground up. Images of paintings he did as a student at Chelsea, abstracted still-lives in a painterly Cubist idiom, seem thoroughly competent if not inspired. Certainly not the work of a beginner. Perhaps one can see the influence of the young Australian painter and fellow-student, Alison McMaugh, who had several years experience behind her already. They were married in 1961. Alison was deeply interested in color, in both a practical and theoretical way, and established a solid and consistent career as an abstract painter. They were very different as people, and as artists, but each strongly supported the other over the years, and in what became a difficult and isolated situation in Michigan, and in Arizona where they moved for her health after his retirement from teaching. Her death from cancer in 2005 was, as the saying goes, “a mortal blow” for Jim, from which he never really recovered.

To get back to 1963, Jim’s promise as a painter was recognized by a scholarship to the MFA program at The University of Pennsylvania. Piero Dorazio who was teaching there at the time, had persuaded several of the Abstract Expressionists, among them Motherwell, David Smith, and notably for Jim, Clyfford Still, to visit the program and advise the students. The meeting with Still, and their subsequent conversations (more likely monologues) were for Jim among the most critical events in his life. Still’s example as an artist confirmed Jim in his almost religious devotion to painting (a friend recently described Jim as “the most devoted artist he knew”); but then Still’s bitter and angry denunciations of his fellow artists and the art world in general may not have been so useful for Jim, encouraging him to believe that it was the serious artist’s lot to be misunderstood and rejected anyway, so there was little point to organizing your career in a professional way. Moreover, Jim was completely unlike Still: friendly and open, he had a self-deprecating sense of humor. In his teaching job at Michigan State, which he landed after a single year at Penn and where he taught for the next 30 years, he was loved by generations of students, which earned him the university’s Distinguished Faculty award in 1990. Often in the summers he would bring groups of students to London, and with them visit friends’ studios, both contemporaries and younger artists. In this way he kept open a connection with the London art world that was in many ways closer than that of New York. But he had friends everywhere among artists, critics and museum people — his long letters to friends and even slight acquaintances were prized for their thoughtful observation and knowledge of art and music, with only occasional complaints about the art world’s rejection of abstract painting.

In 1970 he first exhibited in New York, in a group show at the adventurous but short-lived Reese Paley Gallery, one of the first big Soho spaces. Unfortunately it closed before Jim could have his first one person show there — the space would have been ideal for the scale at which he was now working. In the next three decades Jim had one person shows at galleries in Michigan and several university galleries around the US, but New York proved more difficult. During the ‘70s Jim would make an annual trip from Michigan, his van loaded with the previous year’s production of huge canvases on rolls which he would drag into pristine gallery spaces and proceed to unroll on the floor, to the dealer’s evident dismay. By temperament Jim was not the best advocate for his kind of painting, he just assumed that the artists of Still’s generation had established norms for painting in terms of its subject, scale and ambition that would be permanent, not just a phase, a passing fashion. For whatever reason Jim was unwilling or unable to put the time into making adequate images of his paintings. You could not get back far enough in his studio to get a picture without distortion, and even in a large public space the actual visual experience of a 50-foot canvas like Transition (1988-98) was impossible to capture in a slide. Size was a necessary component of his symphonic ambition for painting. He favored a horizontal format with an implied grid or web of vertical and horizontal bars, which could be more or less dominant or transparent, but never rigid or dogmatic and always carried out with delicacy and sensitivity. He worked thin acrylic paint with a variety of implements, including brooms, squeegees and sticks.

James Adley, Carmine, 2007.  Acrylic on panel, 24 x 36 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist

James Adley, Carmine, 2007. Acrylic on panel, 24 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

In 1977 Jim’s persistence finally paid off, with a one-person show in New York at the Neill Gallery, but that too closed a few years later. A big museum space would have been perfect but was equally elusive: the nearest he came to that was inclusion in a show at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, in 2001, titled “Imagine: Abstract Paintings from the 1970s.” The only place outside his studio where his work could be seen, and still can be seen, were public buildings for which a painting was commissioned, like Helios in the 1980s, by Michigan State University. Jim had the respect, even the admiration, of some quite well known fellow artists, critics, and museum people, but somehow it never translated into wider recognition. He did win unusually high praise for his work from the Pollock-Krasner foundation, when he won a substantial award in 2005.

Jim’s career recalls that of one of his heroes, the composer Havergal Brian, who after achieving early recognition in the first years of the last century, went on to write 32 symphonies and much other music in complete neglect and obscurity; only three had been performed by the end of his life, when there was a revival of interest in his work. Jim himself flew to England to hear the first performance of Brian’s 7th Symphony in Liverpool in 1987. Like Brian, Jim never stopped working, regardless of the prospects for exhibition, let alone sale, of his grand symphonic paintings. Even in his final years, bedridden and so crippled that he could no longer write, he somehow managed to produce small panels of astonishing freshness and beauty; he was painting until the last week of his life.

A memorial for Jim will be held May 31st at the Kresge Art Center, Michigan State University, Lansing.


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  • John Dempsey

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece and touching on the scale and impact of Jim and his work.

  • Peter Rippon

    Well considered and well written. Jim would have been touched by your observations and sentiments. His work really demands a closer and more all encompassing showing. It should be done …. Peter Rippon

  • Margaret Manzi

    I had him as a painting instructor at MSU, and enjoyed his classes very much.

  • Pat Patterson

    What an incredible person. He taught me to see abstraction as a kind of visual music. I was an M.F.A. student at MSU from 1989-1991 and I was suddenly thinking about him today and decided to look him up. I am sad to find that I did not get a chance to say goodbye. Goodbye, Jim.

  • dennis summers

    I was one of Jim’s students in the late 70s and what struck me most about Jim was his wide range of knowledge, which led to many long conversations that only tangentially were about painting. As you mentioned Jim made it a point, in the pre-internet days to stay in touch with former students via cards and letters. Thus I was able to continue to look at his unrolled paintings for decades after I graduated. There was a time when I might have said that Jim had no influence on the style of my own artwork, but in the last decade as I’ve created two different series of abstract color videos inspired by musical composers, it’s clear that his influence laid dormant for many years. Thanx for the article.