New York

Dennis Adams

Gallery Nature Morte; 14th Street and Third Avenue

Advertisers relish the captive audience. There is no demonstrable proof that reception necessarily leads to perception, but at least it offers the possibility that communication has occurred. A prime target these days is the person who waits for some transaction to occur; the individual waiting for a bus or subway is particularly susceptible to the message-makers. Most who wait to get from one place to another expect, aside from the occasional public-service announcement, nothing more than another close encounter with a photo-enlargement of Calvin Klein briefs.

Bus and subway stations are among the most public places in a city; they constitute most people’s mental map of an urban area. Dennis Adams exploits the potential of these places through the two bus shelters he has constructed in New York, one at 66th Street and Broadway, with changing installations since 1984, and another at 14th Street and Third Avenue. Created under the auspices of the Public Art Fund, Inc., Bus Shelter II, 1986, at 14th Street, is Adams’ most recent public project. It is already covered with grime—the colors seem faded—but the consequences of the environmental hazards only intensify Adams’ esthetic investigation. The bus shelter—two angled and slightly overlapping photo-panels—is a constructivist concept of intersecting planes, bold primary colors, and industrial materials. On one side are contiguous photographs of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg taken in 1950 at the time of their arrest on charges of espionage; on the other, transparencies display the words “RECOVER” and “IMITATIONS” in bold red type against a blue background. By choosing the Rosenbergs as a photographic subject, Adams appears to be testing the well-being and quality of civil rhetoric. His work suggests that public life need not be based on conformity, but may be based upon passionate dissidence as well.

There are many conceptions of “public,” and most Post-Modern ideas emphasize the divisiveness and randomness of civic and cultural activities. In contrast, a classic, Modem sense of “public” envisions a forum where individual agendas are subordinated to community-driven desires. Adams’ work embraces both conceptions of public.

Models of this project, of Bus Shelter I—which first bore a large photo-panel showing Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, from the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954—and two wall-mounted sculptures were shown in the gallery. One sculpture, Surplus Goods/Surplus History, 1986, is a large, oblique triangular structure that forms a large bin. The posterior plane that slopes away from the wall encases a large photograph, also taken during the Army-McCarthy hearings. The bin is filled with mat-gray transistor radios. The juxtaposition of formalist esthetics with outdated everyday objects and ambiguous photographic messages suggests that everything about the past remains current. For Adams, the forgetting of history is a disturbing phenomenon, and it is in the domain of public art and public place that history can be represented and recollected. Adams’ work is not didactic; it does not suggest what the public should know or believe. It does insist on thoughtful interaction and a testing of convictions; it is about thinking rather than knowing.

Patricia C. Phillips