Hank Murta Adams
By William Warmus
essay appeared in Glass magazine in Autumn, 1996
castings of Hank Murta Adams are beat up, injured, cobbled together, melted,
blasted, cast, casted, fused, cracked, cooled, chilled out, frozen, freezing,
dug out, melted out, ground down, nailed, suspended,
punctured, pierced, pieced, metered, handled, groomed and tuned into a
cast with real faces: ironic, sexy, distressed,
cynical, deathly, hearty, funny, deathly funny, lost, limping. Limpid.
Adams: “The slight translucency of glass gives the pieces a spirit, makes
them alive, moody.
“ Glass admixes all the damages and returns a healthy glow, an inner light
that devours disfigurement by
outshining it and outdistancing death. The figures with openwork structure
swaddling them like cloaks are especially brilliant. They are survivors. Or
maybe, like Ella (1993) they are healthy actors portraying invalids.
likes his techniques basic, difficult, sudden and slow. His techniques
respond in kind with aborted, destroyed creations: few survive the casting
process without blemishes. Adams
protects himself psychologically from the failures of cast glass by acting
like a gambler, has his own approach to lady luck: he chooses the color of the
casting at the last minute, sometimes refuses to look at the results until
months later. Sometimes he never opens the mold.
of the emergent figures, barely survivors, “have a stunned look imprinted on
their faces, as if things were moving too swiftly to digest” and their
alienation is absolute. Hank has wrenched them from a fast paced world, cast
and blasted them, the suddenness of casting slowing them, slowing the way to
death, leveling the steep slope toward death. Another way to say this is that
casting freezes time (a busy person would say it takes up time), pushing death
away like an airbag. That is stunning.
fights the speed that Paul Virilio identified in Pure War: “Technology
infinitely promotes speed” and “ tends to strip us of our consciousness.
Like the ‘I run for you’ of automobile technology, an ‘I see for you’
as in television. Glassblowing is such a technology of fast production.
Hank Murta Adams, comfortable in his Zinnia garden in Tennessee in the middle
1980s, recognized that the universal palette of glassblowers (we call it
Kugler: prefabricated standardized color rods) is a borrowed palette tethered
to efficiencies of speed and technology, an “I choose for you.” Zinnias
became for him a slower, contrasting, living palette, one he continues to use
in his work and in his life, even in adornment for the monumental wedding cake
he made for his friend Susie Krasnican’s wedding. Casting with molten colors
became the third, slowest palette of all. Unlike much in contemporary life,
casting, Hank Murta Adams style, does not “see for you,” it does not “think
for you” or “enjoy for you.” Adams castings are not a production craft
but a reproduction and recording process that, like film,
slows things down, edits them, tints the colors, comes in close and
personal or gazes fixedly at horrors.
demand of a picture what we demand of literature and music; dramatic interest,
interior movement; we want a picture to be a little drama, something, even if
only a landscape or still life, in which the eye can fix and involve itself.”
you are a believer or a skeptic, on reflection I want you to agree that this
work exists for applause or shouts, for
at last we have, in glass, an engaging dramatist! A shout? An exclamation
point? In glass? A crafted medium of brittle vessels? A transparent medium,
hiding no secrets except its technology? A cold medium?
If there is a critique of craft, it is that the autopsy recovers no spiritual
remainder. Extremes are required to resuscitate the vital forces: dramatic
means. Hank Adams flagrantly abandons the visible world to technology, seeking
to dramatize the invisible world of the heart:
of the eyes is done,
those images in you, those captive ones;
you conquered them: but now you don’t know them.”
Maria Rilke, Turning
a long time now, we have let technology see and even feel for us, just as we
have seen through glass, without taking the time to process what we
see. Adams has begun to unravel the enigma of heartwork with his long unopened
molds, unseen colors, painfully slow processes, dense castings and dramatic
endings. In Governor (1995)
the mouth is filled with copper: cut off, the slim bars would become teeth;
left long, they are something stuffed in. Drama and enigma conjoined. A
chipped edge does heartwork, is just enough to reveal the ruby red interior,
evoking the drop of blood a doctor extracts to gauge health. That chip is in
harmony with Adams philosophy: “Keep it direct,
simplify things so they are digestible.” Digestible with an
occasional whiff of something nauseating.
He toughens the work because he doesn’t want things to be “casual,
insincere, goofy,” except goofy in the Twilight Zone sense, Hank citing the
famous episode where ghastly ugly creatures perceive themselves as beauties
and us as creatures of horror. These dualities of looking and feeling,
beauty and beast, encircle Adams’ work, centering on his insight that
“death is only fearful in the context of love.”
says that “Health is the only important issue now” while in the next
breath telling us that he is “not entirely sure what the health thing means.”
He looks for a way to express his feelings: “HIV, among the most
important things that’s happened in the 20th century, connected us, made us
more aware of sharing flesh, aware of the old adage that ‘If you have your
health you have everything’.” Before HIV, we could flaunt our
individuality, we were invincible. But as the philosopher Spinoza wrote “
...imagine that a small worm lives in the blood, whose sight is keen enough to
distinguish the particles of blood...he would consider each particle of blood
to be a whole, and ... could not know how all the parts are controlled by the
universal nature of blood.” But in truth,
“blood has the character of a part and not of a whole...all bodies
are surrounded by others...every body...must be considered a part of the whole
universe,...and to be connected with the other parts.
“ Every part has connections to everything, needs to be receptive to the
whole. In works like Cell (1996), Adams interconnects, binds and chains
his castings, and in Casting the Trojan Horse
a small cast concrete temple (with cast windows) was built above
the Pilchuck campus north of Seattle, de-centering the campus, disrupting its
self centered vision, and reconnecting those on campus to the original spirit
of the place and to one another.
which Hank regards as a “slap in the face of technology,” binds death
intimately to love, in fierce opposition to the stated goal of medical
technology: to drive a wedge between life (and love) and death. And yet
without death their is no meaning to life-- Walter Benjamin: “The greater
the meaning, the greater the subjection to death, because death digs out most
deeply the jagged line of demarcation between physical nature and meaning.
“ I’m reminded of Hank at work in his studio, chipping away at his molds
to recover the inner men and women that are his castings.
long as you catch self-thrown things
all dexterity and venial gain--;
when you’ve suddenly caught that ball
she, one of the eternal players,
tossed toward you, your center, with
throw precisely judged, one of those arches
exist in God’s great bridge-system:
then is catching a proficiency,--
yours, a world’s.
sculptures bristle with receptors, antennae, funnels, receptacles intended to
accept inporings of fluids, receive transmissions of waves, catch balls, pull satellites into their orbit. Swizzler
(1995) has a locator mechanism, as does Bust with Locator
(1995), which according to Adams has “Some kind of mechanical device to help
us find our way, but we probably loose our way.” Other casts are dressed up
with radar ears or cake pan epaulets on their shoulders, as if
mocking technology or echoing Adams: “We only tap a slight surface in
the way we communicate. We’re now blossoming into new ways.” Many of these
devices seem suitable for making a catch: for catching a virus? Some behave
like tumors, upheavals emerging from deep inside the body. In Engulfed the
glass bust is surrounded by copper threads in a wind swept pattern, the result
of handling and finishing, really quite an orderly record of the object’s
life in the studio. Neat and buried alive.
the castings share an inversion from Adams earliest works, c. 1979-1984. In
the Dome series, images were protected within blown bubbles, sheltered
and separate. In Hovering (1984)
a head floats within a Zeppelin form over a blasted landscape. Later, the
domes became the heads, hollow inside, works that today look “sweet and
saccharin” to the artist. None of these objects built bridges or make a
catch. All were self-centered and secluded. Health issues and heartwork
transformed them into the castings of the nineties.
describes a performance piece he would like to enact at the Blenko Glass
company in Milton, West Virginia, where he was head designer from 1988 to
1994. Using the factory’s non-stop annealer, he would create a continuous
chain of glass links, forged at the furnace, annealed as it passes along the
conveyor belt, emerging through the factory doors, carried to the town and out
to the interstate highway: burning hot at one end even as it shatters on the
pavement at the other, a dramatic illustration of the interconnectedness of
everything, the absurdity and promise of technology: “another one of those
arches that exist in God’s great bridge-system.”
don’t know if Hank will forge that chain. I do know that his demanding work
throws us a world, catches us squarely between the eyes, promises the joy of
heartwork while it asks the most difficult of questions:
things, whose essential life you want to express, first ask you, “Are you
free? Are you prepared to devote all your love to me, to lie with me as St.
Julian the Hospitaller lay beside the leper, giving him the supreme embrace
which no simple, fleeting love of one’s neighbor could accomplish, because
its motive is love, the whole of love, all the love that exists on earth.”
in a letter to Baladine Klossowska, December 16, 1920
essay appeared in Glass magazine in Autumn, 1996
Murta Adams’ legal name is John Murta Adams, Johnnie to family and old
friends. Hank is a college nickname bestowed on him by Pamela Powers.
quotations derive from interviews with the artist conducted in Lansing and
Ithaca, New York on August 20 and 21, 1996, including a walk through the
historical vegetable gardens at Cornell University, as well as subsequent
telephone interviews in late August and early September.
Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign
Agent Series, 1983. p.75.
Greenberg, Perceptions and Judgments 1939-1944 Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1986, p.65.
has books and a tape of Rainer Maria Rilke writings, given to him by his
sister, a playwright. Quotations from Rilke used here are taken from: Edward
Shaw (trans.), Uncollected Poems. New York: North Point, 1996 and
Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Ahead of All Parting. New York: Modern
mother, Beverly, who he describe’s as “The bravest person I know” has
been ill with MS for many years. The complexity of his feelings about health
surely originates here.
John Wild, editor. Spinoza: Selections.
New York: Scribners, 1958. Letter to Henry Oldenburg
American Arts and Crafts movement figure Henry Mercer focused Adams attention
on the “Cement Age,” and cement as another casting material.
Buck-Morss The Dialectics of Seeing, Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1989. p.161