BENNINGTON — Among the first things one might notice on a visit with Pat Adams Ricks, a renowned painter who has made Bennington her home since 1973, is her firm handshake at almost 94.
Her daughter-in-law, Meg Winslow, notes that physical strength has been crucial to the creation of her mother-in-law’s canvases, not to mention her hobbies of gardening and piano.
Known in the art world as Pat Adams, she is often described as a modernist painter, as well as mixed-media artist. Adams is known for her use of hard and soft lines, vibrant colors and shapes, and textures that explore “complex metaphysical ideas,” according to a description by the Alexandre Gallery in New York, which this spring hosted an exhibit focused on her work in the 1970s and ’80s. Mediums such as oil, acrylic, crayon and gouache (opaque pigments ground in water) and materials that include eggshell, mica, sand and shells express fine detail on canvases up to several feet long and wide. The works’ titles consist of brief, sometimes poetic phrases, such as “Out Come Out,” “Pass” and “Innately Abounds.”
“Usually, the title is something that has some remote connection to the painting, but it’s mainly for the beholder to have some place to put their feet on as they try to enter a strange situation,” said Adams on a recent day in a book-filled room in her home. Visiting from Massachusetts were her son, architect Matthew Longo, and his wife, Meg.
Her paintings span from the 1950s to the 2000s. Matthew Longo described the ’70s and ’80s, the middle of his mother’s career and the focus of the Alexandre Gallery exhibit, as a “seminal period for Pat, where she did many of her strongest pieces.” (When speaking of his mother as a painter, Longo refers to her by name, but in their personal interactions, she is “Mom.”) Also, by starting a retrospective series in the middle of her career, the next show can go in either direction. The next show, in 2023, might focus on the 1990s and 2000s.
Mara Williams, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center’s curator emeritus, owns an Adams painting from 1969 called “On Either Side.” The watercolor on paper shows a multicolored squiggling line with different textures on either side. Discussing Adams’ work on a recent day, Williams said, when she first heard Adams give a lecture, “I sat there and went like this,” her jaw dropping.
“She’s multidimensional, as a thinker,” Williams said. “I find her quite an extraordinary human being.”
This lecture was in the early 1990s, and Williams recalls Adams’ ability to speak on topics such as the cosmos, microbiology and philosophy, and not only make them understandable to the listener, but transfer her understanding into two-dimensions.
“People impress me as artists,” Williams said. “Her level of thinking is off the charts, as far as I can tell.”
Williams happened by Adams’ exhibit in Manhattan this spring, and said when she left, “there were only three itty bitty pieces that weren’t sold.”
The exhibit was reviewed in The New York Times by Roberta Smith, who described Adams’ paintings as having a “fineness and excess of detail — and therefore of meticulous technique — that astound the eye.” She closes her review by saying, “Surprisingly, her canvases are not yet represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum. Just saying.”
Williams laughed as she recalled these closing lines. “It was actually a very, very sweet little sign-off.”
Williams said Adams is what curators would call a member of the second-generation New York School. “She came of age after abstract expression, but still really influenced by the great European artists who came and started teaching in New York,” and also at places like Bennington College, where Adams taught from 1964 to 1993.
“The history of American art, that era, is only now being written. And it is certainly only now being written vis-a-vis women,” Williams said. “And so, I think it’s only a matter of time before she’ll enter that art historical discourse and critical awareness.”
On a recent day at the entrance to Bennington Museum, to show sense of what is inside, was one of Adams’ works, “Three Become Four (#2),” from 1964, with more of her work inside. Curator Jamie Franklin got to know Adams’ work when he put together an exhibition a few years ago.
“She’s an incredibly observant person. She’s always interested in the kind of complexity of our human experience, through our senses, not just sight, but haptic, how our body senses things, how our body moves through space,” Franklin said. “She’s incredibly articulate. And those ideas of kind of conveying the complexity of the world and being articulate in that conveyance, I think conveys [through] her work, as well.”
These days, because of the physical limitations that come with age, Adams mostly is working on collages, made of a “scrap of this, a scrap of that.” When asked if she plans on showing the collages, she paused, and said she makes them out of personal necessity.
“I need them when I become distressed. The world is so out of sorts now. I have to work, because when I’m working, I can arrive at a point where things seem to relate, where there’s an equal and equilibrium, that is so important to us. I feel the arts offer that to humanity,” Adams said.
She recently sat with Vermont News & Media to talk about art, inspiration and picking stuff out of the dustpan.
Q: Can you talk more about your motivation to create?
A: How can I say this? It’s such a long life, and all, every day, is filled with the desire to make marks, to just simply make marks, and what is the inspiration for those marks? I don’t know. I do know that I believe artists provide evidence of human wishes, human hope, I don’t know. I don’t know really what it does, other than it’s very important that we have a group of people in our lifetime, that are willing to be patient, step aside from other things that go on in life, and will make these marks and will continue to find that they have deep import for them.
I think if it could be said in words, it would have been said in words. We know the brain has cells wanting, cells who want different things. Often, I feel when I’m painting, that there is a great wanting, and part of what I’m doing is trying to fulfill my understanding of my experience and my life, but not able to work it out in mathematics or philosophy or anything. I have to try to follow my hunches and my sense of qualities and all my experiences and make what I can of them.
Q: What is your process like, and how do you know when a painting is finished?
A: I work on a painting usually over two years because I have to think about it. I have to hear what it has to say. And what I
always used to say was that the work demanded, it demanded that something occur here that connects, and pulls the rest in.
I feel a painting is finished when suddenly, I have the sense: It “is.” The painting is. It’s not ... anything that I can name out there. What it is, is all of what my human experience has been, somehow occurring in these different events that relate to each other, and the interrelationship arrives at a poised moment. And that is what it “is.” Now, that “is” does not have the names that we use to describe a landscape.
Q: What do you hope your viewers experience?
A: The viewer has to be caught, be attracted to something, and then sort of stay with it as the work reveals to it what it is. I’ll tell you a very funny experience of this was with — do you know the poet John Ashbery? I came upon a poem of his in The New York Review of Books. And I don’t like long poems. And I thought, “Oh, dear, here’s another long poem.” But then I started to read it, and I couldn’t let it go. And that’s what I think a painting does. Something in the fabric of the painting, of the poem, of the music hooks into some urgent need, that you don’t even know you have or want, and you stay with it, and you go on and on with it, and it opens and releases so much. It really is truly wonderful, truly wonderful. You hear a piece of music, and you’re just, you know, you can’t move out of your chair for a while. One has to be able to trust that experience. But there’s so much awful work out there now, that it’s very hard. You know, it’s very hard for you to sort through things, but you need to develop your own sense of: “This is valuable.” “No, I cannot waste my time on this” — it’s that kind of decision. Life is so short.
Q: You employ all kinds of media and materials in your paintings. What are your collages made of?
A: A collage is a scrap of something, usually a piece of a ticket, or a wine bottle top, something of that sort, glued to a canvas, a piece of paper. I became interested in that when, well, I’ve always been interested in bits and pieces, and combined them in a way, let them interact with each other. But then, as I was here, spending more time in the house, as I would move around, I’d come upon a scrap of this, a scrap of that. Something would be blue, or glossy or a little unnamable, usually. But I would find that my eye thought there was something marvelous about it. So I’d go over to the dustpan, and pick out what I thought was interesting, and start to put it into a piece of paper that had some kind of activity, usually, a smudge or a line or something. Those two would begin to interact, and then I find another little scrap someplace. This is over time, because some of these are two or three years old.
Then I would notice, my gosh, this is not a landscape. This is not a seascape. This is really a scrapscape. It’d begin to take on the nature of another kind of world. And so that’s what I’ve been, that’s what I’ve been doing. As the day goes on, I’ll come upon an ad or a piece of material or something in the house. If it really is of interest, I’m going to take it into the laundry room, where I’m working now, throw it in a box, and then in a day or two, I’ll begin to see that this piece relates to that piece, wants to be next to this piece. That’s how these things move along until suddenly, the situation, the visual events on a piece of paper, begin to cohere. And I feel, “Ah, here’s something that is possibly able to talk to somebody else,” and then we call it art.
Q: In 2021, you gave a detailed interview to Hyperallergic, an arts-centered publication in Brooklyn, and one of your former students printed it out to share with her students. What was the response?
A: I was so tickled because most of them thought it was very calming. And I thought that was so interesting. That reading that and looking at the work, they felt calm. Right now, I think that is one of the most important things that we’ve got. The world is so agitated and dashing about, and to be able to follow a line of thought that happily brings you into new territory, and you feel free and open in it — what could be better?