Ed Adler: The Adventure of Art
by Richard Marranca

This interview was done on St. Patrick's Day in 2011. Ed and I went from waiting on line for Guinness Beer and listening to an excellent but very loud Irish band in Connolly's Pub on 47th Street to dipping bread in olive oil in the sunlight at Da Nico on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, only a few miles from Ed's studio.

Around 1992, quite by accident, I took Ed's Art and Ideas of the 1960s class at NYU. He was one of the few professors who wasn't uptight or wearing the intellectual mask and was very fun, embodying the sense of travel, naturalness and creativity that he spoke about. In 1994, he coordinated the Beat Conference at NYU, one of the last chances for the Beats to be in the same place. Also, Ed was a member of my dissertation committee (years before, he had done his dissertation on art in the 1960s), helping me navigate through that labyrinth, and got me involved in many interesting things at NYU or around the city. He's always very inclusive and willing to help others. Even some years ago when he had a business, it had to do with encouraging and marketing traditional art from the Philippines.

Throughout the decades, Ed goes to his studio on Fulton Street each day to work on his paintings, often having lunch or a stroll in the neighborhood with visitors. From time to time, I visit him, and we usually go out for exotic food or at least a falafel at some street vendor, and sometimes I join him for lectures at the Explorer's Club. We catch up on things, look at his new paintings and talk about if anyone we know is still teaching at NYU. He also travels when he can, runs most mornings and is active with his family. Recently, for a year, I taught part-time in the Liberal Studies Division at NYU and Ed gave art talks in my classes; some years back he did the same for my creative writing classes at Rutgers, where I recall many students being inspired by someone deeply involved in creativity, and it didn't hurt that Ed had been friends with Allen Ginsberg too.

Ed shows his work at galleries in New York City, Paris and many places around the world. His works have been exhibited in The Smithsonian, The Brooklyn Museum, The Los Angeles County Museum, The Denver Art Museum, The Santa Monica Museum and The Museum of Modern Art, along with many exhibitions at NYU. His works can be seen at his site on the internet, WWW.EdAdler.com. And he is represented in Europe by Joanne Eder: anamericaninparis@wanadoo.fr.

Were the 1960s a source of inspiration for you?
They certainly were. And in two distinct parts, as the decade itself was divided. The early sixties were optimistic and fun. The Jack Kennedy years, the world was young and bright, there was no anger or frustration in the air. There was trouble brewing in Vietnam but it was sparsely in the news. Abstract expressionism, the dominant art of the '50s, and considered somewhat incomprehensible and elitist by many art world insiders and outsiders, was about to give way to the lively imagery of Pop Art. And my own painting began to move in the direction of Pop: colorful paintings using popular, commercial, well-known characters in the paintings.

And the second half of the '60s?

This began to set in when JFK was assassinated. It gained momentum as the Vietnam War escalated and the anti-war movement became an underlying theme of the counterculture and eventually society itself. This second part can be perceived as the angry sixties. You can hear it in the music. The Beatles' early tunes about love and fun are pivoted into political-social satire with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album, the Rolling Stones emerge in black leather, tough-guy garb and blast their songs at a throbbing audience no longer dancing to the music but standing with clenched fists. Bob Dylan's work progressed from homey folk into a politically-inspired folk rock.

And what happened in art?
Art moved to a Dada-inspired Pop imagery. The Dada movement arose in Europe during World War I, in 1916, as an anti-war statement by artists. The Impressionists and Post Impressionists had dominated the European art scene prior to that but was now deemed too beautiful for a civilization so violent as to allow the horrors of war with modern weapons, airplanes, even to bomb cities. Dada Art was deliberately ludicrous, depicting objects like a fur-lined coffee cup, an electric iron for pressing clothes with nails across its surface and "found objects" like a bicycle wheel and a urinal hung as art.

And did your own art change during the period?
My earlier imagery was figurative, even Matisse-like, as my mentor, Jack Lubin, with whom I studied at the American Arts School in New York for several years, had been a protégé of Matisse. I never forgot the painting techniques that Jack had taught me, but the imagery and subjects of the paintings came from the news of the day. A lot of seemingly random juxtaposing of images – like Dylan was doing in his songs. The theory was that a viewer, presented with a painting that didn't seem to make sense, for example, images of automobile parts, food, pin-up girls, letters or words or numbers, all scrambled about, would have to exercise the sensual right hemisphere of the brain, the part relatively unused in this technologically dominant, reading, writing and arithmetic-oriented left hemisphere society. This exercise, on the part of the sensitive part of human nature, would help produce a person who could better evaluate the violent excesses of a war-prone government, and the then current Vietnam War in particular. By seeing more clearly the idiocies of this violence could help to end the war. Thus, the artist, no longer a frivolous element in the chaos of modern civilization, could make a difference.

How did the Beats influence you and others?
If we are thinking of the Beats as a generation, then it is my generation and I was not so much influenced by it, as I was a part of it. I first met Jack Kerouac in 1950, but didn't appreciate his talents until 1957, when On the Road appeared. When I read the book, it was a remarkable description of the four years I had spent in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack's hometown. They were years of driving around the country in old cars, hitchhiking, climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and, at times, living on forty cents a day.

The Beat credo was the influence on myself and many young people, who would discover it in 1957. The key words were "freedom" and "spontaneity." The freedom was freedom from the regimen of tradition, from the near Victorian conservative mores of the 1940s and 1950s; spontaneity would come with the lifting of the heavy weight of custom and morality, as Andre Gide had said. And it catapulted through the creative communities making art largely in the form of Abstract Expressionism; music would turn toward jazz, and a new American literature was born in the books of Kerouac and William Burroughs and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and many others.

Not surprisingly, when I interviewed several artists, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wessellman in 1975 for my doctoral dissertation and I asked if there were any authors or books that they felt had influenced their work, they all responded with Jack Kerouac's On the Road. So I guess my final answer to your question would have to be the same. Actually, Jack does have some strong imagery in his phenomenological descriptions, like "at lilac evening," "the long skies over New Jersey," and "Friday afternoon in the universe."

You organized that Beat Conference in 1994 at New York University. What special experiences did that bring you?
There were many, many wonderful moments: planning with Allen Ginsberg, when he opened his legendary address book with the phone numbers of Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, Hunter S. Thompson and even the White House; putting the music and the event together with David Amram, who worked tirelessly through the year of planning and then played music every day of the conference. Lunch and dinners included conversations with Gregory Corso, John Sampas, Michael McClure and Ray Manzarak, along with Al Aronowitz. I enjoyed being with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in New York but also in City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. I got to know the charismatic Christopher Felver, photographer of the Beat Generation, who has shown portraits at the National Gallery in Washington and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. And also, of course, NYU's Beat Art Show, which I curated, was interesting. In conjunction with this, I learned that Kerouac's paintings filled an attic space in his brother-in-law's Victorian house in Lowell, and that Allen Ginsberg had thousands of inscribed photos in his 12th Street apartment. William Burroughs had been painting for years, often with a shotgun, a board and cans of paint, in his backyard in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was artist-in-residence at the University of Kansas. He would stack the cans in front of the board and shoot them. The splattered paint and distressed board constituted his art. He also did more traditional works and was represented by Gagosian Galleries.

Ferlinghetti, too, had been painting very seriously for much of his life. He holds a Ph.D. in art from the Sorbonne, and although his major focus has been his poetry, for many years he spent long periods of time at his studio. Gregory Corso did some beautiful paintings, oils and watercolors. Some were hanging in Allen Ginsberg's apartment and office on Union Square and some at his publisher's office. And we brought many of those into NYU's Washington Square Gallery for the show.

Soon after, at the suggestion of John Sampas, I wrote Departed Angels: Jack Kerouac, the Lost Paintings, which was published in 2003 by Thunder's Mouth Press.

Years ago, you mentioned that art recyles stuff from around the world. What is this "recycling" idea?
One of the wonderful perks of being a professor of art is one is able to allow tangential ideas to blossom as the lecture goes on. Sometimes they grow into theories, even metatheories, and can evolve into books, courses, programs, research projects, icons. I don't think this idea was one of those. It may have come about as a result of a question or comment from a student. It is a good pivotal word, "recycle," to begin a discussion.

As a basic proposition, it can be approached as art being passed along from one period of civilization to the next, each adapting the principles of the previous epochs and submersing it into the aesthetics of the current. It could be looked at through a shorter lens as the way Impressionism evolved into Post-Impressionism into Fauvism into Expressionism into Abstraction into Abstract Expressionism, ad infinitum.

None of my lecture notes ever contained the word "recycle" so I suspect this was a one-time idea; a utilization of a contemporary slogan as an art history directive.

How were you inspired or influenced by running, traveling, membership in the Explorers' Club, stuff like that?
When I was seven and living in the Bronx, my parents sent me to a religious school from 5-6 pm, which was located half a mile from the house. During winter months, it was dark and scary when I went, and worse when I returned home, but I refused to allow my mother to walk me there or pick me up. I ran as fast as I could.

While I was in the class, I was bored and spent the hour drawing in my notebook. This went on for six years. Running and drawing. When I got to high school, I was the fastest kid on the track team and could outdraw anyone in the art program.

What about all the traveling you've done in Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc.? Is it something like forty-two countries?
I did a lot of traveling for ISALTA, the International Society for the Advancement of Living Traditions in Art. This organization was headed by Professor David Ecker of NYU, one of your former professors as well. I was director of Field Surveys. We were trying to keep the indigenous arts of countries, which still had a non-commercialized crafts industry, from becoming commercialized. For example, in the Philippines, where I spent a lot of time, there's a wonderful population of wood carvers. They make the same figures their families have made for generations. When tourism picked up in the 1980s, some entrepreneurs found that tourists liked the carvings better if they were painted and decorated with day-glow paint. ISALTA arranged for importers of primative art to buy fairly larger numbers of the work in it natural color. So although I cannot say this type of travel influenced my own paintings, still it was part of my work and for me, most importantly, about art.

And about the Explorers' Club – I became a member of this society of explorers, researchers, climbers, marine biologists and, recently, astronauts, because of my work with ISALTA.

Do artists dislike analyzing their own art?
Unless it's under duress, I don't know of artists analyzing their own art. An example might be if one is under Jungian analysis, as Jackson Pollock was for many years, and his analyst had him bring the latest paintings in to analyze the symbols – in his earlier periods Pollock painted discernible symbols.

Explaining one's artwork is generally a given, but it's not really analysis. It's talking about what's on the canvas, and maybe why. The absolute worst thing that can happen is a psychologizing of an art work. It turns it into a Rorschach test, an analysis of the viewer, not the work, and not the artist.

You will find that many artists are pretty good at talking about their work and about art in general. You do learn that in art school, especially in college, you may not learn how to paint, but by the time you graduate you can sure talk about art – write about it too. There was a course I took at NYU called Phenomenological Art Criticism. It dealt with a scientific method of analyzing art, a method similar to that used by psychologists in calculating the weight of words in a person's dialogue. It's half statistics, half-math and half-assed aesthetics. You focused on a painting's color, subject, texture, line. It was an interesting exercise, but more in concentration than in art.

So to answer the question: yes, I dislike analyzing my art. I'm also not too crazy about other people doing it either.

What do you find interesting in art now?
All you have to do is walk through the gallery districts of Chelsea in New York and its equivalents in LA, Chicago, Paris and Berlin and you will find it impossible to classify the art into a single "ism." Even several would not be easy. For a long time now, since the 1970s, we are in the art era of "eclecticism."

Back in the 1980s, there was an "art is dead" slogan afoot by many critics who felt the end had been achieved with The Minimalist Movement. Blank canvases for the most part, empty galleries. Today and for awhile now, "installations" are popular. The artist "decorates" the gallery into an art environment. Most of these non-art ideas are derived from Dada.

But a big change in the art world is the acceptance of photography and film as fine art. Not film as in commercial movies, or even the cinema, but the use of film and video to create images that are projected in galleries and museums, as fine art.

What do you find most interesting in this eclectic environment?
As a painter, I do lean in that direction and I'm always happy to see paintings on canvas done in new and fresh way but still in the grand tradition of paint on canvas. As an art professor, I try to connect new work in all media to the long history of art.

What are you painting now?
I have been paintings a series I call "The View from Plato's Cave," which have a central image of a romantic landscape painted to produce the hazy, dreamy sensibility of a Renaissance painting. In the foreground is a shadowy silhouetted figure standing or promenading across the bottom edge of the scene. This is all surrounded by a five inch border filled with botanical flower illustration against an antique gold backdrop and separated from the outer edge and from the central image by a narrow checked strip of paint.

What is the view from Plato's Cave?
In The Republic, the rulebook for the perfect society, Plato writes of people living in a dark cave, seeing the world outside as only shadows and silhouettes of people. The light or consciousness enters from above for those who can see it. The mass of people view the world only as dark, mysterious shadows. Only the brave, the adventurous, willing to walk up to the entrance to the cave, will see the image and beauty of the world beyond.

I am proposing that people still live in caves. In a sense I am proposing that to own – or at least to view – one of these paintings is to step out of your cave and see the magic land beyond.

Among the shadowy figures walking by is a hunched over little guy in a broad-brimmed pointy hat, carrying a backpack and walking stick. This figure is based on an image I saw on the side of a puppet theater at a street carnival in a town in Italy, maybe from the 1960s. I had a sketch of him around the studio for a long time –somehow I related to him – me in my rambling days. Then when I was drawing the characters he came to mind. A friend of mine who lives in Germany, near the Dutch border, said he might be Knechet Ruprecht, the guy who goes with Santa Claus and gives lumps of coal to the kids who've been bad. But I don't think so: I see him as Little Edward, an alter ego, out there walking the world.

How about the border – the antique-looking flowers and those characters in the corners?
It all started a few years ago in France. I was there to participate at a conference about American ex-pats in Paris – Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, the Beats too. They all stayed at the Beat Hotel there.

I noted wine labels with beautiful little pictures of the vineyards and thought the scenes would work on a series of vineyard paintings. I wanted to go beyond a simple landscape and had been painting borders with airplanes, monkeys, mermaids and acrobats for some years. Some antique botanical watercolors I saw at a friend's house furnished the idea for the flower borders.

The little figures in the corners also came from antiquity. Many Renaissance drawings had small images, usually studies for the central subject of the work, at the corners. I had always been intrigued by these – so, they seem to work. They don't necessarily relate to the central image, but who knows? Maybe some day they will.

Is there an evolution in your art or a recycling of original influences?
There is a clear evolution – a metamorphosis even – that I can see. It begins, like a lot of artists, with comic book heroes – some people think I never quite lost that aesthetic or technique. I like to think I didn't, but it's the comic books that have changed. Much more sophisticated today as graphic novels.

But by the time I was in high school as an art major, I was trying to emulate Hopper, Wyeth and the American Realist painters. By college, I became a Surrealist and emulated Max Ernst, Man Ray and the Dadaists, and my favorite painting was The Eternal City by Peter Blume at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In the army in Boeblingen, Germany, at Panzer Kaserne, I spent a lot of time at the Arts and Crafts Department, where a German Expressionist painter was in charge. It was 1955, not much to do for an American solider, so I painted, did ceramics and made posters for the army. The work shifted toward a surrealist-expressionist feel.

Discharged and back home, I signed up at the Hudson River Museum School, where I did a brief course in landscape painting by a well-known painter named Harold Walcott, very traditional, well-executed work, and he actually demonstrated technique, which I found very rare in the years of art school that were to follow. This experience motivated me to paint as accurately as possible, and years before Photo Realism became a popular style, I found myself on Cape Cod painting very realistic lighthouses, boats, wharfs and fishermen in yellow slickers.

Moving on to the American Art School in Manhattan, where I began using my GI Bill funding, I studied with Jack Lubin, who I think of as my mentor. In small groups, Jack taught a Matisse-style of painting, which had great appeal to me in its fluidity of line and rich color, and by 1960 I was painting in a "French modern" style.

Then the 1960s and Pop Art came along. I remember it was on a Fourth of July weekend, when the idea came to me to find images in the Sunday New York Times and ensconce them in paintings. I probably worked sixty hours and ended with the first of my Pop works "News of our Fearless Leader, four feet high and nine feet long. Over the years, I have done fifteen versions of the work, always with new and contemporary imagery.

The Pop style never really left. The juxtaposed image works followed, became more organized into grids, which I called Pop Mythologies, a term I heard Leonard Bernstein use about his music. The grids materialized into borders. The central images ranged from sexy women to cowboys, dandies, heroic characters.

I remember seeing many of your paintings of cowboys and Indians. I remember when a German collector bought a bunch of them and you had some displayed at Dojo's off of Washington Square.
That began when NYU suggested I put together a show to celebrate the millennium in 2000. I reflected back on my art life and remembered the war cards of my childhood that came with a sheet of bubble gum back in the 1940s. I liked the colorful explosions, the old tanks and yellow biplanes, the glory of war to a small boy in the World War II era. I remembered trying to draw and color the images and I probably had the whole set of about 140 cards. They were a penny a piece in those days. After the war they turned into baseball players. So in 1999, I got hold of a set of the cards and did twenty-five paintings using my favorite cards as models, which were shown at NYU as part of the millennium celebration. Having been sidetracked from my metamorphosis, I decided to continue on the reflective track and do a series of cowboy paintings in the aesthetic of The Pulp Western Magazines, another early source of inspiration for me in my first decade. NYU showed the cowboy works in The Broadway Windows, and it became an "installation" as I made forty-three paper mache sculptures of cactus, lizards, pistols, boots, ten gallon hats and other Western items to go with the paintings.

Through the years the cowboy paintings have become a staple in my oeuvre. I do a few when I feel motivated – sometimes by a movie or a book like Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry has provided a lot of inspiration – and last summer a visit to the Pequot Indian Museum in Connecticut set off a series of American Indian paintings that are in progress.

How would you describe paintings with words, borders, whimsical characters and beautiful scenery?
Words, letters and numbers in paintings are sometimes like a soundtrack to the work, an additional dimension. At other times, if they are part of a scene they are obviously just part of the contemporary sign-littered landscape.

The borders can be looked at decoratively-aesthetically if you will – to separate the central image from the chaos of the world around it. On a more philosophical level, we could think of it in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian energies at work on the canvas. Chance versus control. The carefully organized and conceived, almost engineered borders, fencing in the less controllable natural, Dionysian world: beautiful as it may be, still always volatile.

And the whimsical characters: well, I have always thought that art is thought of as humorless, a serious business; people speak in hushed tones in its presence, the museum as church, well attended by the family on Sunday. So these characters: Monet at his easel, a country waif with her ducks, woman at a butter churn, a fellow in a toga playing the pipes of Pan. Appropriated from the remote corners of paintings over the centuries, they add that out-of-context bit of absurdity to this otherwise very serious art with a capital A.

Are you bothered by the New York art gallery scene? I mean the business aspects.
Some of my best friends are art dealers. I know there is an ingrained hostility among artists about the difficulty of getting a show in New York, but it's pretty much a matter of
statistics. There are hundreds of galleries but thousands of artists in the city. I've shown over the years, in New York and around the country, on a regular basis – France and Canada too. And I'm not very aggressive in pursuing the shows, but they come along.

But the "New York Gallery Scene," as you put it, is one of the great ongoing free events for the public. On Saturday afternoons, the streets of Chelsea and Soho and even on parts of 57th Street and Madison Avenue are packed with gallery hoppers. It's an ever-changing show and not just for collectors. Ivan Karp, the owner of OK Harris Gallery on West Broadway, told me that on one Saturday afternoon over 3,000 people visited the gallery – and no one bought anything. No, I'm not at all bothered by the gallery scene. It's one of the things I love about New York.

How do you feel about the outrageous amount of money for some art? Why are some paintings part of the stratosphere of wealth?
I think it's wonderful. No greater show of appreciation than making art among the most valued objects in our society. A nice aspect of it is that many of the higher priced works get sold to museums – and they generally are the most important works of an artist. That way they are available for everyone to see, enjoy, study…

It sometimes bothers me when certain major works, like Van Gogh or Picasso or other artists who I feel are important, are acquired by private collectors, disappear into mansions and are no longer available to the people. It seems that in the long run these eventually wind up in museums when the estates are put up for sale and, with the constant escalation of values, are not affordable to individuals bidding against museums. And there are more and more museums opening around the world.

One of the advantages of being knowledgeable about art is that it puts one in a position of being a skilled collector. I have always urged my students to use their background, their art education, to begin collecting art as early as possible in their lives. I began incorporating this little idea in my lectures way back in the 1960s. At that time limited edition prints by Warhol, Rauschenberg and even Picasso were available in the range of a few hundred dollars. Paintings were in the low five figures. Today the prints are up in the $50,000 range and the paintings in the millions.

As for paintings being part of the age of materialism, it's a sign that people appreciate uniqueness. In this era of mass production there are very few things for which there is only one and it's good to see that it is valued. Why they achieve such outrageously high value is probably a matter for the shrinks. One theory I thought about was that paintings are toys for grownups. Remember how you valued your toys as a kid? Maybe paintings fill that void when you grow up; paintings and maybe expensive sports cars too and, well, maybe sexy lovers.

Why are art critics often such pretentious writers?
Yep, they can be tough to read sometimes. There was a Times critic years ago – theater, the arts and such, Arthur Croft, and people used to say that no one as yet has ever finished reading one of his articles. Tom Wolfe wrote a whole book about it, The Painted
Word," how the criticism of a work was trying to outshine the work itself in importance, that the day would come when the walls of galleries and museums would exhibit an eight by ten food reproduction of the critique and a small reproduction of the art work at its side.

There is actually a term for this kind of obtuse writing: "sesquipedalian obfuscation!" We all pick up a lot of big words along the way, some that work well in writing about art, like "iconography" and "anthropomorphic," and used selectively they can help describe work in a seemingly intellectual way. Some German words, like "Zeitgeist" work well too; and of course the Italian "pentimento" is a must to describe the bumpy marks showing through a painting what was underneath, the changes an artist has made.

The critic though should be a counselor to the community's appreciation and comprehension of some of the more esoteric workings of the art world. I insisted my art history students write in their notes: "Elucidate, don't evaluate."