Thin Art: Adam Gordon

Adam Gordon in conversation with Ross Simonini


I first met Adam Gordon on a warm fall day at The Strand bookstore in New York. I knew little about him. I had seen only a few pictures of his hazy, photographic paintings, and had had a single uneasy experience with one of his environments, Tiernan (2016), consisting of a long, dim hallway, a stack of boards, a whirring fan, and little else. That room had refused to allow me a satisfying description, and so it has lingered with me, unresolved. I didn’t know what Gordon looked like, but we quickly sorted each other out, and immediately I ascertained that he was a body-builder—an unusual physique among artists. We walked several blocks down Broadway and into Washington Square Park, where we found an empty bench to sit and talk. Nearby, a brass band played, stopping and starting their covers of pop tunes. Beside us, a woman read a book with a pale cover. The sky was overcast, the air was humid, and a breeze blew through the trees. We spoke for two hours, into the torpor of late afternoon, and have not seen each other since. 


ROSS SIMONINI: You’re leaving New York. Where are you going?

ADAM GORDON: Southfield, outside of Detroit. This kind of area is referred to as flex space or light industrial. I’ll feel at home there. Most people are manufacturing something.

ROSS: Why are you leaving?

ADAM: I just think I needed a healthier environment for my work.

ROSS: Did the work suffer from being in New York?

ADAM: There’s a sense of low-grade dread here. New York always seems like it’s on the brink of blowing up. But the tension can be good in some ways.

ROSS: Are the environments of your work trying to approach your own ideal environment?

ADAM: I’ve noticed a pattern where I keep making spaces that are like the womb. You’re isolated in a plain gray room. It’s usually a very quiet space, though there’s often a whirring or murmur, almost like the epidermal layers of the wall. You can hear the sound of the outside world, but it’s very muffled. The natural light is dim. It’s enclosed, and the world stops. I want to go into these works alone. I’m always gravitating toward these elements.

ROSS: Are you trying to create a separate world from our own?

ADAM: I’ve never been interested in fully immersive installations, like Mike Nelson. I don’t want to walk into a gallery and be in a totally different world. I want a porous relationship between the work and the outside world.

ROSS: Is your studio an environment like this?

ADAM: It’s not an installation. It’s very much a utilitarian space. I’m into training, bodybuilding, and in those situations it’s best to get in and do the work and get out, so it’s all fresh. And I treat the studio the same way. It’s a place to work, and that’s it.

ROSS: Are you just in the studio for short periods?

ADAM: I’m there all day, but I’ll leave. I work in three- or four-hour periods and leave for thirty minutes. Or maybe I’ll just take a nap or check out. But I need to refresh.

ROSS: Like training, your painting seems to require extreme discipline.

ADAM: I often work with photographs for the paintings. Some people think I’m a photorealist. But I’m not. I guess you could say that the photograph is a major element. But while I’m using the photo for reference, the painting does not adhere slave-like to the photograph. For the installation works, it’s similar. I have a clear idea of what I’m going for. The works cost a lot of money, so a clear idea is important. However, I change things all the time. The biggest foundational structure won’t change, but smaller elements will. 

ROSS: During installation?

ADAM: Yes. Within the context of the main idea, it’s quite fluid. You have to be open to what the world gives you. From the planning through the installation, I’ll change things. It causes problems sometimes.

ROSS: What does the “clear idea” look like in your mind?

ADAM: Well, it usually begins with a specific space or room. This space is perfect and the goal is to make that space so that it has a 1 + 1 = 3 resonance.

ROSS: Do you try and notate the idea?

ADAM: I have pages and pages and books of ideas.

ROSS: What does the idea look like on paper? A list? A poem?

ADAM: It’s somewhere between a list and a poem. It’s like writing a note on whatever situation we’re in right now. It’s very particular. It has to trigger the feeling of the moment, like the certain overcast quality of the sky right now—even when you’re in a totally different mindset, the note has to bring you back. I’ve often thought about Marcel Proust and his ability to capture resonant time. For instance, right now I’m very slowly working on an idea that will last a year. I want a longer time frame for an experiential work. So I’m looking for a certain building and I want an actor or two to take a train to that building regularly for a year. It’ll become part of their lives. They’ll be doing a rote task over and over. They wouldn’t interact with visitors.

ROSS: But it’s not theater.

ADAM: I’m not interested in theater at all. 

ROSS: What about film?

ADAM: I haven’t seen a film in a year, but there are certain films I love: Taste of Cherry (1997), The Seventh Continent (1989).

ROSS: Where do you find your actors?

ADAM: Craigslist. I found this woman named Iwona who has become a close friend of mine. I started working with her when I asked her to walk the streets in Midtown for a work. Everything about what she was wearing was curated. I aged her five or so years with a makeup artist. And she would only walk down particular streets. She wouldn’t interact with people, even if someone asked her a question. Then, simultaneously, I met a man on Craigslist named Gonzalo. His role in that piece was to take the train twice a week from Brooklyn to Derek Eller Gallery in New York. In that case, I didn’t say anything about what he should wear or when he should go or whom he could talk to. I don’t think anyone saw the work, but I liked the idea that all this choreographed scaffolding was set in motion. It doesn’t even matter that it wasn’t experienced directly. I just wanted the idea to come to tangible fruition. At the end of the day, action is more important than thought.

ROSS: Did you document this?


ROSS: Did you notify people of it?

ADAM: There was a piece of paper in the gallery with a simple description.

ROSS: It creates the possibility in a viewer that reality could be controlled, in this way, at any time.

ADAM: I keep thinking about the phrase “thin art.” The work that I keep making is beyond mundane. It’s almost like putting a piece of glass in front of where we are now. I’m trying to get away from as much gesture as possible. I’m more interested in observing. Recently I’ve been making videos of trees. They are very boring and long. But this weird thing happens: they become like portals, an entrée into the possibility of a more perfect world. I’ve been taking photographs in Times Square. I don’t even think about them when I shoot. I just take them. I’m not trying to change anything or find an interesting-looking person. I’m trying to get at an energy. It’s just a shitty photo in the bright sun. Totally empty and boring.

ROSS: You want to move away from intervention.

ADAM: I want to create a world in which there’s all sorts of possibility. A perfect world. But simultaneously, I’m trying not to create anything. It’s the creation of a world that almost perfectly resembles what’s already there. The funny thing is that it requires an enormous amount of work. 

ROSS: The uncanny: one hair off from reality.

ADAM: I’m not even sure what that hair is. Maybe it’s the parameter, the frame?

ROSS: You’re not capturing all of reality, though. That energy you are looking for, it’s specific.

ADAM: Yes and no. I’m opening up more and more. For years, I’ve been acutely aware of how people see things through their own lenses. I’m trying to get rid of my own lens. I’m trying to push against my own preferences.

ROSS: But once you get thin enough, there’s no more art.

ADAM: That’s the logical conclusion, for it to disappear. And yet, what keeps me going is this process of dissipation. Whether it stays within the art world or not isn’t really up to me. With that said, the art world feels like one of the last places of freedom to me. 

ROSS: Is your work an exercise of self-development?

ADAM: It helps me take my work to places I didn’t know it could go. It’s becoming more unknown to me. Very, very close observation can become a kind of meditation.

ROSS: Does other people’s work do this for you?

ADAM: My favorite artist of all time is Lee Lozano. I appreciate artists who take something to an extreme—who go far beyond gesture. It’s the difference between facade and commitment. The way she was thinking about her work and life, it was in another dimension. She was breaking ceilings. And like her, I started with very traditional painting. But it’s funny, because some people don’t understand how I can do video, painting, and the experiential work in the same practice.

ROSS: I haven’t seen the video work. Have you shown it?

ADAM: Never.

ROSS: Lozano is one of the few artists I can think of who collapsed everything into work. Do you consider your upcoming move to Detroit as part of your practice?

ADAM: It’s not a performance. It’s a move to get closer to creating a total work of art.



Adam Gordon (b. 1986, Minneapolis) lives and works in Detroit. This fall he will have a solo show at ZERO…, Milan, and will participate in Time Is Thirsty, a group exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien.

Ross Simonini is an artist, writer, musician, professor, and documentarian. He splits his time between New York and the California redwoods. He published a novel, The Book of Formation (Melville House, 2017), and his next exhibition will be held at Catbox Contemporary, Brooklyn.



Originally published in Mousse 68 


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