Derrick Adams takes off
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Derrick Adams takes off
From left, Derrick Adams’s “Hold on Tight” 2021, and “JUST,” 2022 at his new show “I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You.” His new paintings, with their perfect planes of color, expand on the theme of “Black Joy,” proving that delight and humor are their own form of resistance. (via the FLAG Art Foundation; Photo by Steven Probert via The New York Times)

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK, NY.- In “I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You,” his knockout show at the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea, Derrick Adams does just that. What he mainly reveals is a new level of maturity and ambition in his already distinguished art, with its layered view of Black life and culture in America.

Whereas much of his previous paintings explored portraiture, the ones in his “Motion Picture Paintings” series sometimes grow to mural size (up to 16 feet across), allowing for a more complex sense of narrative, space and form while also giving his larger-than-life figures room to move.

The larger size also shows off Adams’ meticulous technique, a canny blend of traditional painting, illustration and geometry. His faceted figures and faces in particular are astonishing made things that reach back through cubism to the carved figures of African sculpture.

With 16 paintings on view, this show is museum-worthy. It widens the view of Adams’ central theme, which is — as he has frequently said — Black joy. He wants to emphasize — to show, not tell — that there is more than trauma and oppression to Black life in America. There are the joys — of being, of achieving, of community, of creativity — that are themselves forms of resistance as well as the basis for an enormous swath of American culture, high and popular.

As befits the series title, the “Motion Picture Paintings” have a filmic glamour. Song and movie titles, familiar sayings and single words float across the surfaces of most paintings. The enormous profile heads haunting the backgrounds of several works evoke billboards. Some compositions resemble the passing shots of a movie camera, such as the sidewalk scene of “Onward and Upward” (the 16-footer). It shows several people walking purposefully along, past a stylized winged logo of movie-credit scale. It says “Soul Plane,” the title of a 2004 comedy about a Black-owned airline. The enormous heads of a male and female pilots look on from either side.

The glam quotient is highest in “All With a Soft Touch,” dominated by an angelic stewardess in a serenely pale airplane where, it seems, the passengers are Black. Overhead plushy letters say “This Must Be Heaven,” a 1977 hit by R&B band Brainstorm. In “The Horse You Rode in On,” the powerful head of a landowner sports a beautiful feathered fedora and is further accessorized by disembodied horse; below, the words “Town and Country” attests wryly to the man’s sophistication. In “JUST,” a couple shares a tender moment in hammock that announces the sugary movie conclusion: “Happily Ever After.” Meanwhile, in “Hold On Tight,” a little brother presses close to an older one. The Exit sign places them in an airplane, but their eyes may register something more threatening than the fear of flying.

In “Weeee the People,” a cyclist whizzes past (heading left). Behind him, three of the giant profiles fill the background with a panoply of browns, russets and creams, adding a spiritual blend of care, witness and aspiration. To the left edge, the word Weee conveys joy (whee); toward the right different communities are signaled by a boombox decorated with what look like Rainbow Flag stickers, and flying above, a small Pan African flag. The complex and lively distribution of shapes and colors underscores why Adams calls himself a formalist.

The richness of Black culture seems to be the subject of “So Much to Celebrate,” a painting festooned with the words “Happy Birthday Mr. Soul!” While a bubble-gum-blowing security guard looks on, homage is paid to theater and television producer Ellis Haizlip (1929-91), whose enlarged profile is visible on a black-and-white television screen. Haizlip’s variety show, “Soul!” (PBS, 1968-73), which helped introduce such artists and musicians as Roberta Flack, Nikki Giovanni, and Ashford and Simpson, was as much a vehicle of education as entertainment. Adams underscores the importance of this contribution with two artworks in vitrines: a Senufo female fertility figure and a 1955 head of a man by Black sculptor Elizabeth Catlett that is ominously titled “Target.”

Adams shares the desire to depict Black joy with many Black artists and not just American ones, including Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. He also belongs to a long tradition of combining geometry and figuration that has one beginning in Egyptian sculpture, another in African art and the cubists, followed by American artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and William H. Johnson.

But Adams distinctively binds all this together in the way he paints, which I would venture is his own act of perseverance and a way of exalting both his paintings and their subjects. His small, perfect planes of color give his figures stasis and solidity — a regal hereness.

‘Derrick Adams: I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You’

Through March 11, FLAG Art Foundation, 545 W. 25 St., Manhattan,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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