BLACK PEOPLE FLOATING leisurely in pools are among the most recognizable images Derrick Adams has made in recent years. The brightly colored scenes in his Floaters series usually feature an individual figure lounging on an inflatable floater. “Floater 49” (2017), a mixed-media collage work from his Floaters series appears on the fall 2019 cover of Juxtapoz. The image depicts a man sitting in a fuchsia pink inflatable ring wearing sunglasses and kente cloth-print swim shorts. Life is good.

Inside the magazine, a profile of Adams written by Jewels Dodson is accompanied by a photographic portrait of the artist by Bryan Derballa. About two-thirds into the article, Dodson includes the following paragraph:

    Throughout the first half of the 20th century, racist tactics were implemented all throughout the United States to exclude Black Americans from public pools. If Black people entered a pool it was evacuated and drained. At times, lye was thrown in pools to deter Black swimmers, who were often asked to provide “health certificates” to prove they were disease-free. On June 11, 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge restaurant. A few days later civil rights activists conducted a wade-in at the pool of the Monson Motor Lodge to protest Dr. King’s arrest and St. Augustine’s overall segregationist injunctions. In an attempt to remove protestors, the motel manager began pouring muriatic acid into the pool. That moment was broadcast around the world and became a seminal reason President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This unexpected slice of civil rights history provides a lens of gravity through which to view the artist’s enchanting pool images. Adams began his Floaters series about four years ago. The central narrative is fun in the sun and joy and relaxation—standard outtakes of middle-class life. Swimming and carefree lounging in pools, at beaches, and on lakes and rivers, are common American past times, but black people are rarely represented among the leisure set engaging in these activities—in images or the imagination—adding to the complexity of the works.

Rife with symbolism they recast historic oppression. The contemporary images offer a counter narrative to segregation-era norms legally banning African Americans from public pools. The artist’s seemingly ordinary and mundane images propose a radical notion: black people enjoy water, embrace moments of calm and respite, and have the means, agency, time, and desire to do so.

Making what he wants to see in the world is a guiding force for Adams. The Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s colorful, Pop-style depictions celebrate black people and the black experience. In 2015, when an Instagram search for “floaties” returned countless images of people with blow-up floating devices, none of them African American, he decided to create such scenes himself.

“That’s what I believe as a contemporary artist right now, as a Black person. I think we have very little time to be giving props and praise to problems in our art,” Adams says in the latest issue of Juxtapoz magazine. “And I think that we should be creating solution-based structures within our work that would empower people not to ignore the problem but know that we’ve been through a lot of stuff and we’re still here, and we’re still making quite an impression on the world.”

“I think that we should be creating solution-based structures within our work that would empower people not to ignore the problem but know that we’ve been through a lot of stuff and we’re still here, and we’re still making quite an impression on the world.” — Derrick Adams, Juxtapoz

Titled “Be Who You Want to Be,” the fully illustrated article in Juxtapoz explores Adams’s work, the concepts and history behind his images, and his background serving as director and curator at RUSH Art Gallery, the New York space established by brothers Danny and Russell Simmons. Adams worked at the gallery for 13 years, advising and promoting up-and-coming artists—producing shows, writing artist statements, dealing with administrative and operational issues—experiences that are serving him well today.

Adams finally made the decision to concentrate exclusively on his own practice in 2009. Through lessons learned helping other artists and the strength of his work, his career is thriving. Earlier this, month Adams joined two new galleries. New York City-based Luxembourg & Dayan and Salon 94 announced they are working collaboratively with the artist, who is also repped by Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. “Where I’m From,” his first solo exhibition in his hometown of Baltimore opened yesterday. Adams is presenting 10 paintings inspired by old family photos at The Gallery at Baltimore City Hall.

Juxtapoz talked to Mickalene Thomas about Adams. The two artists have been friends for 25 years. They met at Pratt Institute, where each earned an undergraduate degree. She has a unicorn float by Adams in the pool at her country house in Connecticut.

Thomas weighed in on Adams finally hitting his stride. “I think that shift happened probably about five years ago, when he started doing the collage work, but also when he started painting more,” she said. “In undergrad, he mostly focused on performance art, installation, and sculpture, but I think when he started focusing mostly on two-dimensions, his work took a shift. When he started using those same concepts and theories from performative works in a more two-dimensional aspect is when that shift happened.”

Having gained some real traction, Adams is turning his attention to helping other artists again, according to the article. Forthcoming in 2020, he plans to open a studio/incubator space in Baltimore that will house a residency program.

Also in 2020, “Derrick Adams: Buoyant” will be on view at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y. The solo exhibition is the first-ever museum presentation of his Floaters series. As the museum notes, its “unique perch along the banks of the Hudson River in Yonkers provides a particularly compelling setting to consider these images and themes.” CT


READ MORE about Derrick Adams in the full article published by Juxtapoz

LISTEN On NPR two participants recall the 1964 swim-in at the Monson Motor Lodge pool in St. Augustine, Fla:’It Was A Milestone’

FIND MORE about Derrick Adams on his website


A catalog is being published to accompany “Derrick Adams: Buoyant” at the Hudson River Museum. Until then, Adams, who was among the contemporary artists who participated in the “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art, also contributed to the forthcoming volume, “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” which is expected to be published in late November.


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