Adventures in Scholarship: Clifford Addams (1876 - 1942)
(Nineteenth in a series of posts on the Art of Collecting)
Upon completion of my A History of American Tonalism a few years ago I was fairly confident that I had found and documented most if not all the major artists working in the Tonalist style: three generations stretching from the late 1870s to the 1920s. In retrospect, one artist eluded me: Clifford Addams (1876-1942), whose birth date and career would place him amongst the third generation Tonalist born after 1865. I did, in fact, include Addams in the book, but only briefly in the section dealing with printmaking, for I assumed he was primarily a printmaker of etchings of a very high caliber. Only recently have the full accomplishments of Addams as an oil painter, watercolorist, and etcher become clearer to me. I now believe he was one of the very best artists of his generation, which begs the question: If he was so great how could his reputation and works have become so lost to art history?
This question, or variations on it, has led me down the road into the wilds of art history dozens of times, and in each case the story is the same . . . and it is not.
The career of Clifford Addams is yet another example of the fragility of even the finest artistic reputations and the serendipitous paths of their recovery. Like so many artists of his generation, the works have been scattered to the four winds and documentation on his life and work must be tracked down in dusty archives, or more fortunately, the furthest reaches of google search. On the face of it, Addams had all the credentials of a major artist of his day. Born into a Quaker family near Philadelphia, he first studied architecture and then won the prestigious Cresson Traveling scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age 23 in 1899. Going to Paris to study painting, Addams quickly came under the spell of Whistler, enrolling at the mater’s atelier, The Academie Carmen, and soon after marrying a talented artist, Inez Bates, who taught at the Academie Carmen and then took over the running of the school until its early demise in 1901. Both Addams and his wife were pledged apprentices to Whistler: husband and wife were exceedingly close to Whistler in his last years. Their first child, Dianne, became Whistler’s goddaughter. Whistler’s influence on Addams was immediate and profound as he wrote to his parents: “I have been able to comprehend sufficiently enough, to tell you that [Whistler’s] system or craft has a depth and beauty undreamed of by me, and which I believe, once mastered, would be considered a way of working of the old Masters.”
Whistler’s inspiration is apparent in an early etching of 1902, Admiral’s House, Amsterdam, (State I, Smithsonian American Art Museum) where Addams’ pays explicit homage to his master by including, “élève de Whistler,” under his signature in the plate. Much of Whistler’s love of intimate urban views is found in this early work, full of feeling for the shimmering aqueous light reflected off the building facades in old Amsterdam. The architectural motifs are everywhere highlighted by careful wiping of the plate to obtain a soft sumptuous tonality evocative of flickering light. But this charming view would undergo alteration by Addams in 1920, Admiral’s House, Amsterdam, State II. The scenic Dutch landscape on the right has been replaced by more buildings, while in the bottom and right foreground, on docks and boats, watching figures have appeared; some are everyday folk going about their business but others have a more quirky fantastic quality, their poses and attire hinting at denizens of myth and dream. These personages, some barely sketched in outline, others more fully revealed seem to be watchers on the stillness, pausing, like the viewer of the etching, to gaze upon a suspended world of mirrored reflections. Some meet our gaze, some not. One figure in the left foreground carrying a child with his back to the viewer, seems to be nude, perhaps Triton or his father the god Poseidon, perhaps an evocation of the many mythological figures, the sculpted decorative heads and friezes that populate the architecture of historic Amsterdam. As we will see, this whimsical strangeness, full of playful theatricality, increasingly became a preoccupation of Addams’ art, a fundamentally conceptual practice that sets him apart from his mentor, Whistler, who would have eschewed such bizarre narrative elements. The second state of Admiral’s House, also shifts a tiny window on the second floor of a house to the focal point of the composition, where two gossipers, framed against a dark interior, are bent to one another in eager conversation while keeping a sharp eye on the passing scene. This, too—figures silhouetted against dark and light backgrounds—would become a favored Addams’ leitmotif.
From 1901 to 1903, Addams and his wife, Inez Bates, served, not only as apprentices to the ailing Whistler, but all round factotums, if not intimate confidants as the artist struggled against infirmities before his death in 1903. Both Clifford Addams and Inez Bates were included in the 1901 3rd exhibition of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers, a group of the finest and most progressive artists of the day, very much under the sway of Whistler and his artistic manifesto of art for art’s sake. Even at this early date, barely away from the Pennsylvania Academy with only a couple of years study with Whistler in Paris, Addams received critical praise for a painting, a “delicious” Café de la Vigne: “This effort combines in a remarkable degree a singular combination of delicacy and force; delicacy without sacrifice of truth or tendency to the inane, and force without pugnacity or self-assertiveness. The figures, too, are an indispensable part of the ensemble, and one feels nothing lacking or superfluous in the entire composition.” (The Art Record, Oct 19, 1901, Percy Moore Turner.) This early review of a precocious talent concisely sums up Addams’s early allegiance to Whistler’s mantra: delicacy and truth, and a subliminal narrative content that is more about the beauty of form and color, intriguing patterns of shadow and light, than an obtrusive storyline.
Hints that Addams was something of a mercurial personality is attested to by his exasperated wife, who complained that he would suddenly take off to Venice or Spain from their London home and 4 children, with the excuse: “I find no inspiration here.” Addams’ independent spirit and fickle artistic temperament would lead to a family disaster in 1920.
Living and working in Europe before WWI did not prevent Addams from keeping a firm footing in the American art world. In 1906 the artist exhibited at the Albright-Knox Gallery Annual, and by 1910 he was regularly exhibiting at both the National Academy in New York and his home-ground Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia—the premier exhibiting venues in the US, and at the commercial Clark Gallery, where, in 1910, he received glowing reviews from the New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The pastels, watercolors, and pen-and-ink drawings, and etchings in the Clark show were praised for “a strong color scheme [that] is kept well in hand and the direct touch is strong, without sacrifice of delicacy…and plenty of talent is shown in the handsome little exhibition.” (NYT, Tues, Mar 22, 1910, p 10) The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewer noted Addams individuality and originality: “He is so much an individual that he puts on canvas exactly what he sees in the way that seems best at the moment to express what he feels. There is nothing conventional about his work.” Noting both the similarities with Whistler and where Addams is very much his own man, the reviewer ends with the observation: “One somehow feels that here is a painter, who may not have fully ‘arrived,’ but who has lots of ideas and who will have to be reckoned with.” (BDE, Tue, April 5, 1910, p. 5.)
Two oil paintings, one from 1906 (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife), the second of 1912, (Decoration), acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine art in 1913: display Addams’ mastery of the Whistlerian aesthetic: he is already a painter of delicate tonal transitions and formal arrangement of color shapes, which allows him to wonderfully integrate his figures into the envelop of atmosphere that contains them. Decoration, the title of which belies attribution of a narrative subject, is not a little reminiscent in both coloring and putative theme of works from Picasso’s rose period of five years earlier, a touchstone that Addams with his connection to Paris art circles could not have avoided. Decoration can simply be enjoyed for its gorgeous passages of pure paint-handling and sumptuous interaction of horizontal and vertical elements: a painter’s painting.
Turn-of-the-century Paris would have also brought Addams in contract with fellow PAFA alumnus Robert Henri and his circle, including John Sloan, who first noticed Addams work at the PAFA exhibition of 1907: “Clifford Addams is a theme of interest (among Henri, Dolly Sloan, and Thomas Anshutz, painter and teacher at the PAFA). His nude in the show is a fine thing. If Whistler has done it it would be a great Whistler.” (John Sloan, New York Scene, 1906-1913, p 99) Hints at a somewhat unconventional personality find their way into the notebooks of John Sloan, who met Addams for the first time on April 3, 1910 at his home in New York city (presumably Addams had traveled to New York for his opening at the Clark Gallery, and his two works exhibited at the National Academy) and commented: “Clifford Addams seems to be not at all the weird eccentric we have heard him described during the last six years. Either he has changed or Dame Rumor is a liar, the last most likely.” Given that Addams was an esteemed graduate of the PAFA like Sloan and Henri, it stands to reason that he was well known to Henri’s progressive circles; Addams and Henri would certainly have known each other in Paris around 1900, especially since both adopted a Whistlerian tenebrous Tonalism early in their careers.
It seems that Addams’ breakthrough as an artist, when his technical skills and visionary conceptualism came fully into force, occurred in the years from around 1910 to 1913. In 1913 when he first visited Venice, again following in the footsteps of his mentor Whistler, Addams was inspired and challenged to produce some of the most fully realized etchings of his career. Ma Porte a Venise, displays a modernist mastery of etching and aquatint techniques, resulting in a painterly and expressive rendition of a Venetian evening that is unlike anything of its time. Using broad washes of ink, aquatint, and dramatic wiping of the plate, the artist created an eerily beautiful nocturne full of exotic effects of light and shadow, much of it verging on near abstraction. Given the date, on the eve of WWI, no other print makers of the period, with the exception of John Marin, who worked in Venice seven years before, approached the daring freedom of Ma Porte a Venise. A tour de force of the printmakers art with its luminous inky washes and intriguing textured surfaces.
An Obscure Turning is a minimalist composition, made up almost entirely of the white reserve of the paper, with only the barest architectural motifs sketched in to define the canal setting. The focus is on the two water doors where three rather exotic watching figures stare out from the interior shadows, while a fourth standing figure on the left peaks around the wall of the turning from a perch on the prow of a gondola. The darkened doorways are a kind of homage to the master, Whistler, who loved the contrast of darkened passages bathed in water-reflected sunlight, or gibigianna in Italian. Here, Addams seems more interested in the whimsical theatricality these settings allow, creating a kind of visual tension as these personages stare into our space as we stare into theirs. There is a palpable sense of timelessness in the barebones composition, further enhanced by the costumed interior figures which might as well be from Venice’s distant past as present. A nocturnal version of An Obscure Turning displays Addams’ love of manipulating his plates with varied inkings and wipings to produce startling different effects, much as Whistler had done with his Venice etchings in the1880s. Here, in the nocturnal version, a delicate wiping highlights the phantom figures in the two doorways and the shimmer of reflected interior light in the canal below, a kind of polar opposite or reversal of the daylight version.
A Cardinal’s Palace is yet another example of Addams’ fascination with local color and sometimes strange types plying their trades while watching the goings-on from high vantage points, here from the balustrade of palace balcony. Given Addams’ love of the theatrical, one wonders if the foreground figures in the gondola might be an allusion to Shylock and his daughter Jessica? The use of delicate plate tone, retrousage, in this and so many of Addams’ prints only adds to the shimmering quintessence of the scene, very much the preoccupation of a painter-etcher. And stunningly exhibited in two states or variations on a theme in his San Giorgio, Nocturne, where the artistic plate wipings produce dramatically different but equally compelling renditions of the same scene. Venice, Gondolier Café, #3 provides a further variation on Addams’s watchers, in this case a smoking boatman staring out from the shadows of a low balcony over a canal. Although anecdotal in immediate impact, the most spellbinding aspect of the etching is the scintillating quality of reflected light on the ceiling of the sotoportego, or passageway, leading off to the left and another canal beyond. Perhaps the most spectacular of the Venice prints is the large Porta della Carta which positively seethes with energy, as flying pigeons and griffins jostle with an array of fabulous characters, including a turbaned figure in conversation with a begowned woman, perhaps the Moor and his Desdemona out of the pages of Othello, or just a pair of revelers at Carnival season? Such conceptualist whimsy, first fully indulged in the Venice prints of 1913-14, becomes increasingly characteristic of later work, resulting, as we have seen with Admiral’s House, Amsterdam, in the artist updating some of his early prints to accommodate his evolving preoccupations and fancies.
When Addams returned to London in the spring of 1914, like Whistler in 1881, he had a triumphant exhibition of the Venice etchings at Dowdeswell’s Gallery. A reviewer in International Studio noted that the artist had moved far beyond the tradition of etching that focused mostly on plain vanilla renditions of urban architecture. “The artist displays inexhaustible resources in the invention of composition, and has a range of interests that is exciting; and what is more to the point…we have an etcher who is entitled to take his rank at once somewhere near the top.” (International Studio, Vol 53, 1914. Studio Talk, p. 235) A reviewer in The Athenaeum echoed the sentiment: “Clifford Addams has a talent of more definite character, and is, indeed, one of the most interesting etchers recently introduced to our notice.” (The Athenaeum, 1914, p. 900)
How ironic that in the same month as his breakthrough exhibition the First World War broke out, followed two days later by a British declaration of war on August 6th. Addams, an American citizen, immediately enlisted in the Royal Navy where he served until 1919, making him one of the very first Americans to fight in the conflict. During the War years, first posted to an armed liner, HMS Virginia, and later HMS Princess Royal, Addams made drawings and pastels which were never exhibited but served as the basis for later etchings depicting life on board the fleet battleships and scenes in the Orkneys.
Although the war years must have been a distraction, the period was not a total loss in terms of the artist’s career; Addams later produced a number of striking prints based on his wartime experience in the British navy. He also managed to set the stage for future triumphs in his homeland. Using his American connections, most likely his association with Henri’s circle, Addams had two great successes during the war years: the exhibition of 46 of his etchings in the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915 in San Francisco, where he won a bronze medal; and the subsequent exhibition of seven etchings at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1917, garnering him the Frank Logan Prize for An Obscure Turning, Venice. Along with the etchings of Venice included in these exhibitions were a number of scenes of London, including Limehouse in San Francisco and Charring Cross Bridge in Chicago. This would place these panoramas along the Thames to around 1912, just before the Venice etchings of 1913. As in the Venice etchings, Addams’ London views are packed with local color and flamboyant characters with both theatrical and mythic associations. The Thames, too, had been a favorite subject of Whistler. Both these London prints would undergo updating in successive states, especially Limehouse, which by 1924 had been transformed with added foreground figures, a quay and two more watching figures on the left, and a nude on the right, forming a kind of proscenium for depicting the never-ending parade of river traffic. Such allusions to life as a stage seem to creep into more and more of Addams’ work as the years go by. Scattered among the etched offerings in San Francisco and Chicago were scenes of New York and Philadelphia, harbingers of his American work to come after 1920. Stables, Philadelphia, 1912 presents the gritty backside of Philadelphia, very much in keeping with the Ashcan School of Henri and his followers.
The hardship of the war years along with his American prize-winning successes may have contributed to the bizarre and sad break Addams made in 1920: That summer he packed up his prints, paintings, drawing and personal effects and moved back to the United States, leaving his wife and four children behind. With the exception of one visit to his Washington Square apartment in New York by his son, James, in 1942, Addams never saw any members of his family again. Whatever the precise circumstances of this desertion (in 1931 divorced proceeding Addams charged his wife with extreme cruelty), Addams career and reputation immediately took off in twenties American art circles; in short succession he received a number of major prizes in paintings and watercolor, trumping his earlier prizes for etching.
In 1922, Addams won the Norman Harris silver medal at the Art Institute of Chicago for “Bohemienne” with reviewers classing him in Henri’s circle: “Robert Henri’s ‘La Gitana’ and Clifford Addams’ ‘Bohemienne’ range themselves with Mr. Luks’ work in quick adroitness.” Considering these artists superb technical training at the PAFA and the overarching influence of Whistler’s formal values, it is not surprising that critics might find similarities: all displayed a bravura ability to catch the essence of character with adroit flashy brushstrokes. Such recognition resulted in a one man show of Addams’ paintings and etchings at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1923.
Addams was certainly drawn to the representational and gritty realism of the Ash Can School, but the distinctive qualities critics singled out as his keynote achievement was the appealing incongruities of his style and his skillful rendering of works in which the narrative element remains firmly subservient to the works formal qualities, something that Whistler had always insisted was the ne plus ultra of the serious artist. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his prize-winning “At Play” which remains frustratingly unlocated. First exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in 1922, “At Play” was much reviewed at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1923. The painting depicted a girl in a greenish blue kimono against a red background with a little bird perched on her finger. The New York Times reviewer notes the distinctive way Addams avoids making the obvious narrative possibilities the focus of the work. “Mr. Addams plays with it as nonchalantly as the girl does her bird. You almost forget it altogether in your pleasure over his adroit playing. He has treated his red background lavishly to air. Little shadows creep in and out of it, modifying the color . . . Then the greenish blue kimono against it, lovely as a green ocean against a hot sunset, and like it in the hint of motion given by the little waves of change that break into the general tone. Even the yellow bird has an ingratiating way of suppressing its beautiful lemon-yellowness the moment there is danger of its becoming aggressive. That is where the charm of the picture comes in: nothing is aggressive or dead. There is more charm in the shadow that determines the shape of the girl’s head, and in the faint wildness of the outline, as though a gypsy element were being kept out of the way…. When you come into the presence of the greenish blue kimono and yellow bird you are a mind set free. Perhaps Whistler would have called it the art of concealing art. And perhaps he wouldn’t. But it is a fair guess that he would have liked the picture and generously said so. The younger painters can’t bear to give themselves away so artistically. They prefer to have you think that there is nothing to give . . . Anything that has the flicker and variety of handwork in it is anathema to them . . . . (NYT, Feb 18, 1923, p. 11)
A year later in 1924, “At Play” won the Thomas B. Clark Prize at the National Academy for the best figure composition painted in the United States by an American citizen. Again, presumably the same NYT reviewer weighed in with lavish praise. “A picture so filled with the ineffable charm of good taste that in its presence one feels rather too solemnly the absence of good taste in modern art, or at least its concealment. The popular modernist is more afraid of good taste than the older men were of vulgarity . . . Mr. Addams wears it boldly, and his ingratiating picture, already extolled to the point of saturation in these columns, is the embodiment of it.” (NYT, March 30, 1924, p. 12)
The Times reviewer is clearly delineating the dividing line between generations, those of the Tonalists and followers of Whistler who cut their teeth on the technical and stylistic values at the turn of the century, and the younger artists more attuned to the full color slashing brushwork of the modernists who had been exposed to Picasso, Matisse, and the Fauves. In the early twenties, Addams was very much a brilliant practitioner of the Whistlerian mode of art for art’s sake, but from the evidence of the later etchings from the mid-twenties and thirties and paintings after 1925, Addams modified his classic Whistlerian paint handling to include freer more expressive brushwork and more gritty urban subject matter, while still maintaining many of the felicities of the older Tonalist style that put a premium on beautiful execution and less on the purely narrative aspects of the picture. A fine balance that put a premium on artistry first and foremost.
In 1925 Addams won the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for his painting, “Washington Square.” We know from prints like New York, Herald Square, c. 1933, and numerous New York etchings from the mid-twenties that Addams began concentrating much of his creative energy on views of New York around this time, with an emphasis on the architectural landscape and the urban dwellers living in the shadows of the skyscrapers. Printmakers like Joseph Pennell, Reginald Marsh, and John Sloan made urban views at this period, documenting the surge of building in New York City, but Addams work is distinctive for its lyricism and the inclusion of odd characters that populate his cityscapes. Very much the case of a painting, Union Square, from around 1928 or perhaps later. Union Square, allows us a glimpse of the fascinating near-visionary quality of Addams’ mature work, when he’d shed the aesthetic polish of his earlier exhibition pieces for something wholly modern but distinctly grounded in hard-won painterly skills. Much of the early Whisterian tonalities remain, along with the lush transitions of muted colors of a city in the first blush of evening. But it is the expressive quality of the brushwork mirroring the energetic bustle of the city that captivates, and allies Addams with Henri’s circle of urban realists. There is a deep affection for the hard life of the streets and the teaming crowds. The packed sidewalk along 14th Street where the sign for Orbachs, the famous department store, hangs prominently fairly seethes with rambling shoppers and sidewalk vendors. This is not a tourist view but a non-sentimental evocations of a city electric with felt life. The paint marks are as alive as the fabric of the city they depict, full of febrile otherworldliness as twilight descends and the neon signs of the city begin an eerie glow. Very few of Addams’ foreground figures can even be identified as distinct pedestrians, so vivid is the abstraction of form, an abstraction that acts to viscerally communicate the honking crush and jostled blur of rush hour. For its day, Union Square, cannot have been an easy picture to love, or to sell, except to a sophisticated viewer able to respond to the formal panache of the composition and the visual pleasures to be found in every nook and cranny of the canvas, chock a block with slathered and slashed paint marks, some delivered with a deft palette knife and others with etched precision. The narrative element is entirely subservient to the aesthetic impact of the whole. As with so many of the prints, there is a distinct sense of the theatrical, as if city life is but a larger stage for our all too human follies.
By 1929, Addams was exhibiting regularly with the Society of Independent Artists, a progressive group of artists founded in 1917, and after 1924 no longer exhibited with the more conservative National Academy. The now mature artist had adroitly evolved his early style and moved easily in progressive art circles, even as he held firm to his slightly off-kilter subject matter. A reviewer in the Brooklyn Eagle of a 1923 exhibition at the Arlington Gallery caught the idiosyncratic mix of old and new that made Addams work distinctive. “Addams has an extraordinary personal viewpoint. His work is a strange mixture of the most subtle nuances of color with a violent dramatic massing of light and dark.” Comparing Addams compositions with Courbet’s love of clashing contrasts of light and dark masses, the reviewer finds a spiritual quality in Addams, especially in the quiet play of tones and quirky subject matter. “We are told that Mr. Addams only does paint for the fun of it, which accounts for his freedom of expression. He has not established a reputation for himself along certain definite lines, so that he must repeat his successes in order to satisfy possible buyers. He delightfully does just what he pleases with his paint.” The critic goes on to note the artists proclivity to be drawn “to the arrangement and emphasis of certain shapes that please him. A silhouetting of dark shapes against light grounds, an interest in the pattern as it were, is one of Mr. Addams most individual characteristics.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sun Dec 2, 1923, p 26)
One wonders how such an idiosyncratic vision and lack of well-defined signature style went over with collectors in the heady, somewhat conservative years of the twenties, much less the disastrous decade of the Great Depression, when so many artists and galleries were brought low by the collapse of the art market. If an etching from 1935, Panama Bar, is any indication, Addams seems to have fully transitioned from the cool and elegant Whistlerian mode of the twenties to a more sketchy and roughhewn style, while incorporating subject matter of gritty social realism more attuned to hard times.
A self-portrait etching from 1927, offers a glimpse of a narrow face and compressed features, unkempt hair springing fore and aft from a widow’s peak, crooked nose and chagrined lips, and sad indrawn eyes, introspective but attuned to the visual wonder of the world around him. Like many of his more fantastic figures, Addams seems to be wearing a costume of some sort, perhaps a cloak emblazoned with some kind of garish broach at the breast. Open curtains with an architectural backdrop suggest a theatrical setting, as do so many of Addams’ prints. One wonder if Addams was really the eccentric that John Sloan mused on, who perhaps overindulged the idea that he was Whistler’s faithful follower and protégé. And yet with the perspective of time, it is hard to think of another artist who fits the bill of acolyte so compellingly, who like Whistler achieved such success in both the medium of oil and etching, not to mention watercolor (Walter Tuthill Prize for watercolor, Art Institute of Chicago, 1923). To win the major painting prizes of his day at the National Academy, Pennsylvania Academy, and the Art Institute of Chicago, along with prestigious medals and prizes for etching is indeed a singular achievement in his generation.
Which still begs the question: How could such a stellar career become so lost to art history? Addams, of course, shared the fate of so many Tonalist artists whose reputations suffered with the onslaught of European modernism and the coup de grace of the Depression, which both destroyed the market for their art and nurtured Marxist influenced criticism that further disparaged the aesthetic qualities and highbrow tastes upon which their reputations had been made. In Addams case, the fact that the earlier part of his career had been spent in England, the later in the United States meant that neither country’s art establishment quite owned him or had the full picture of his achievement. And it certainly can’t have helped that he deserted his wife and children in 1920 and returned to America where, except for a brief second marriage, he lived alone, dying alone in his apartment on Washington Square in 1942. Addams was found lying dead of natural causes holding a copy of “The Last Post,” by Ford Madox Ford, which he had been reading when he died. With no family to take on his estate and studio effects, most of his work and archives was sold off or lost. Only his print archive survived intact. The etchings went to his son, Captain James Addams of the royal Air Force, who at the urging of his friend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had managed to track down his father’s Washington Square apartment and re-establish contact after twenty-two years. Upon ringing the bell, Clifford Addams greeted his lost son with the words: “Come in, dear boy, and have a cup of tea?” (Essay by Addams granddaughter, Dawn Addams, Catalog of Etchings and Drypoints, N.H. Lott & H.J. Gerrish Ltc, 1984.) Addams bequeathed his prints to his son, and this trove was subsequently passed onto his granddaughter, the movie star, Dawn Addams, and formed the body of an exhibition and catalogue raissonne in 1984. Even this significant redress to Addams’ career and reputation resonated primarily within the print world, and a few exhibitions distilling Whistler’s influence on followers like Addams. As more of the paintings, pastels and watercolors become known and appreciated, to take their place alongside the extraordinary body of his prints, I firmly believe that Addams’ achievement will be recognized as one of the greatest in American art of the first decades of the twentieth century.
If one has to put a finger on the lasting contribution of Addams’ work to American art history, it may well be the compelling poetic strangeness of his vision. At heart, like Whistler, he was essentially a poet in paint and etching, and as with any major poet from Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Blake and onto Whitman and Emily Dickinson, there is an element of strangeness that endows them with enduring greatness, a strangeness that forces our consciousness to expand and grapple with the different and inexplicable. Who are all the strange characters that populate so many of Addams’ works and why are they there? One senses an artist whose mind is attuned to associations across time and space, an imagination galvanized by powerful feelings for everything that has come before, whether Whistler or the literary associations invoked by certain places. The great critic, Harold Bloom, includes strangeness in his essential criteria for enduring poetry, and quotes another critic, Owen Barfield, to explain why: “The element of strangeness in beauty has the contrary effect [from wonder]. It arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own, different yet not so remote that we cannot partly share it . . . Strangeness, in fact, arouses wonder when we do not understand: aesthetic imagination when we do.” (Harold Bloom, The Art of Reading Poetry, p 28). As so many critics in his day implied, Addams combined a masterful poetic artistry with a strange mixture of the most subtle nuances of color with a violent dramatic massing of light and dark. He peopled his etchings and canvases with a panoply of characters that would do Dickens or Shakespeare proud, dramatis personae who often gaze out from their paper and canvas prosceniums into our own world, catching our wondering eye and so connecting their dreams to ours. It is no small wonder that in death Addams should have been found still cradling in his hands Ford Madox Ford’s modernist masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness prose, The Last Post, the fourth volume in the Tietjens tetralogy about the disaster of the First World War and the destruction of an honorable eighteenth-century-man by a world gone mad. It is a troubling-strange work of unsettling themes and quirky characters, and one suspects a novel that would have spoken volumes to an artist like Clifford Addams . . . poet to poet on the ultimate strangeness of the human adventure.