British artist/critic and poet, Alexander Adams talks about the Beat movement, music, visual art, and literature

"Many of the counterculture’s progressiveness regarding sexuality, drugs and technical innovation (in writing and art) have been absorbed into the mainstream of Western culture and its value has been appreciated."

Alexander Adams: Visual Literature

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He was born in London in 1973. He studied art at Goldsmiths College, London and has lived in London, Spain and Berlin. His art is in numerous museums around the world, including the UK, USA, Russia and Bulgaria. His exhibition "Snowscapes" will take place at Williamson Art Gallery, Liverpool in 2017. He writes art criticism for Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online. He has since gone on to exhibit his monochrome paintings around Europe.

His art is in numerous public art collections throughout the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the National Museum of Wales (Cardiff), Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), Northampton Museum, Varna City Art Gallery (Bulgaria), State Darwin Museum (Moscow), and the university art collections of Liverpool, Wales (Aberystwyth), Northumbria and Indiana. He abandoned colour in 1994 but has begun developing new works in colour "to end his apprenticeship". He has published three books of poetry: "Three Strikes" (Bottle of Smoke Press, 2011), "The Crows of Berlin" (Pig Ear Press, 2013) and most recently "On Dead Mountain" (2015, Golconda Fine Art Press). On Dead Mountain, is intended to be a work of art in itself, with the text, design and images working together to create a powerful impression. It is hoped that the proximity of the Russian text will make English readers feel closer to the language of the Dyatlov party and more immersed in the world. The author had control over every aspect of the design and production of this book. His art reviews have appeared in many British art journals.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the art and literature and what does Counterculture mean to you?

Art and literature has many functions. I think one of the central ones is to allow us to examine what it means to be human. The counterculture opens more doors and suggests that the conventional answers might not be the only ones and it gives us a new route to look at different areas and new methods of expressing our findings. Many of the counterculture’s progressiveness regarding sexuality, drugs and technical innovation (in writing and art) have been absorbed into the mainstream of Western culture and its value has been appreciated. I think pledging oneself automatically to a counterculture position is an ideological reflex and is therefore inflexible and misguided. Everyone should look at aspects and ideas individually rather than subscribing to a world view. World views (like conspiracy theories) are a way of taking the edges off ideas, making everything alike and subject to simple laws. People would benefit from adapting to doubt and complexity and finding a way of living with them.

What experiences in life have triggered your ideas most? What characterize your poetry and artwork philosophy?             (Landscape © by Alexander Adams, oil painting, 2003) 

I have found that experiencing events first-hand has influenced me most in my poetry. Roughly 50% of my poems are based on true events, 30% are abstract or purely argumentative and 20% are purely invented characters or stories. In art, it is a response to an individual landscape, model, etc. that directs my ideas. I don’t know that I have an overall philosophy, except to avoid what seems to be insincere and clichéd. I want to make viewing a drawing of a forest as equivalent to being in that forest for a moment, but not by using naturalism. I don’t think naturalism is the best way of making an impact on the viewer. You must use any available methods – symbolism, naturalism, abstraction, tachisme and so on. In that sense, I feel all methods are open to me but I am not a Post-Modernist because I believe the best approach is effective when it is integrated as a whole. It should not be a series of self-conscious quotations of existing styles/techniques. Parody and irony can be corrosive. You must look at your subject (visual or literary) and reach for any available tools. If those tools don’t exist, create them. Then use them sincerely, automatically and with fluency and bring together the materials, methods and ideas in a unified whole. The artist’s only principle should be to make – by any available method – something that is truthful and powerful. If you can also make it memorable then you have achieved the highest level of art. This is what I attempt to do.

Which is the moment that changed your life most? Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

I was always interested in art. When I saw an exhibition of Surrealist art (Liverpool, 1988) I decided to start making my own drawings. I am not a Surrealist now but I have benefited from their free attitude towards making art. There seem to be no conventional limits to making art, only what the internal logic of the artwork is and what my intention is. Very often I don’t know why I have made and art work or found an image fascinating until afterwards. As for personal meetings, I don’t think there is any one person who altered my outlook on life. Or rather, many people have made many small changes to my life.

What do you miss most nowadays from the art/literature of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of them?              (William Burroughs © by Alexander Adams1996) 

We are told that we live in an age when anything is possible, but when you look at new art which is reproduced in magazines and exhibited on museum walls, you notice certain fashions and prejudices. The introduction of big money into the art world has created speculative bubbles and fashion-following. Trends change fast and there is a lack of considered, quiet contemplation of art. I have reacted by avoiding contemporary art and critical coverage of it because I see how shallow the art is and how unintelligent the reviews are. That is not to say that all art today is bad. No, I think art is as bad (and good) as it has always been. We are just not seeing the best art and what is in galleries now is not discussed in a perceptive way. Notice how few important art critics there are today. In the past writers such as Bernard Berenson, Ernst Gombrich, Clement Greenberg and David Sylvester were serious figures in our culture. You agreed or disagreed with them, but you definitely read them and weighed their views. A few more serious critics combatting lazy artists promoted by greedy galleries would help us.   

If you could change one thing in the world of culture/art and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The best change that could happen is the removal of the super-rich buying art as an investment. Yes, the rich have always bought and funded art but in the past those patrons had an understanding of art. At the very least, they had advisers who could discriminate for them on the basis of quality. Now art buying is investment directed by auction results and commercial promotion. If people went back to buying art because they liked it and wanted to live with it, our culture would be healthier.

How important was the Beat Movement in your life and work?

My introduction to William Burroughs’s writing happened at about the same time I saw the Surrealist exhibition (1988), so on a literary and an artistic level I encountered a wealth of new ideas and ways of recording of experiences. I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gysin and Corso later. At university I was always in discussion with friends about the relative merits of these writers, especially Burroughs. Burroughs mixed of morality (albeit unconventional), dedication to art and freedom of thought was a model for me, though I am a very different kind of writer. I love his dry humour. It’s very close to my own. Recently, I have been reading more Ginsberg since the 2015 European Beat Studies Network conference in Brussels. I grow more sympathetic towards Ginsberg, though not to all of his ideas or writings. I need to extend my education in that area. Attending conferences of the EBSN has hugely increased my knowledge of Beat writers and it is a source of stimulating ideas.

What is the impact of music on literature? What is the relationship of art and literature socio-cultural implications? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I cannot speak for the complicated impact of music on literature (and vice versa) but I can tell you that I listen to music when writing. When I wrote my new long poem On Dead Mountain, I was listening to a mixture of Russian Circles (the American post-rock/post-metal, instrumental band) and OMD’s Organisation album, for its eerie, unsettling qualities. That helped me to sustain my immersion in the world of these individuals in a life-and-death struggle in an isolated forest. When painting and drawing I often listen to Steve Reich’s Minimalist music for its repetitive cell-like motifs, which form grand, evolving patterns (which complements working on pictures of forests with the repeated tree trunks); John Adams’s orchestral music is also a help.

What were the reasons that you started the cultural and artistic researches? What (emotionally) touched you?

The list of art that has moved me is a very long list! Painters who excite me are Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Delvaux, Jackson Pollock, Titian, many others. Artists who interest me intellectually are Rene Magritte, Velasquez, Vermeer, the sculptors of ancient Egypt and Greece. Some art I have an emotional response to; other art I have an intellectual reaction to; sometimes I have both. The writer who means most to me on every level is Kafka.

You are also known of your artwork with nude models. The 'Nude' is…

For me, the nude is the most important field of art because inhabiting the human body is the only universal experience all people share. I have been very lucky to work with excellent models. With the best models you form a sympathetic bond and you work together as collaborators. I should mention to you – as a Greek – one of most important models, Fenia Kotsopoulou. She is a Greek dancer/performance artist who was studying in Berlin when we met. I worked with her many times. Her invention and intelligence helped to guide my drawings of her. My task is to work as hard as possible to capture the truth of the model’s figure. If you are lucky, you can even add a touch of the model’s character, bearing and personality to an art work. Partnerships such as that make being an artist a bit easier and less isolated.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I would like to take a collection of books, music and art from the last 50 years to show to the artists and writers in New York in 1940-5, to get some opinions. I would take a few of my pictures also, to get some advice from de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Mondrian and so on. I guess their memories will get wiped after the encounter or cultural history will be pretty radically changed by the encounter. Imagine Pollock making Land Art and Mondrian composing Minimalist music…

How you would spend a day with William Burroughs? What would you like to ask Ezra Pound?

With Burroughs I guess I would interview him about his ideas, writing and his life. Maybe go target shooting with him. I would want to discuss technical poetic matters with Pound. I would ask him about how far literary and cultural quotation can be integrated into a single narrative text. Mainly I would just like to listen to them talk about their ideas (and try not to argue with them). They had such huge learning and wide ranges of influences that I don’t suppose I would be able to follow 50% of what they had to say but the encounter would be exciting for me.

William Burroughs © by Alexander Adams, gouache on paper, 2014

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