Castings: Hank Murta Adams [1]

 By William Warmus

This essay appeared in Glass magazine in Autumn, 1996


The castings of Hank Murta Adams are beat up, injured, cobbled together, melted, blasted, cast, casted, fused, cracked, cooled, chilled out, frozen, freezing, dug out, melted out, ground down, nailed, suspended,   punctured, pierced, pieced, metered, handled, groomed and tuned into a cast with real faces: ironic, sexy, distressed,  cynical, deathly, hearty, funny, deathly funny, lost, limping. Limpid.


Glowing. Adams: “The slight translucency of glass gives the pieces a spirit, makes them alive, moody. [2] “ Glass admixes all the damages and returns a healthy glow, an inner light that devours disfigurement  by outshining it and outdistancing death. The figures with openwork structure swaddling them like cloaks are especially brilliant. They are survivors. Or maybe, like Ella (1993) they are healthy actors portraying invalids.


Adams likes his techniques basic, difficult, sudden and slow. His techniques respond in kind with aborted, destroyed creations: few survive the casting process without  blemishes. Adams protects himself psychologically from the failures of cast glass by acting like a gambler, has his own approach to lady luck: he chooses the color of the casting at the last minute, sometimes refuses to look at the results until months later. Sometimes he never opens the mold.


Some of the emergent figures, barely survivors, “have a stunned look imprinted on their faces, as if things were moving too swiftly to digest” and their alienation is absolute. Hank has wrenched them from a fast paced world, cast and blasted them, the suddenness of casting slowing them, slowing the way to death, leveling the steep slope toward death. Another way to say this is that casting freezes time (a busy person would say it takes up time), pushing death away like an airbag. That is stunning.


Adams fights the speed that Paul Virilio identified in Pure War: “Technology infinitely promotes speed” and “ tends to strip us of our consciousness. Like the ‘I run for you’ of automobile technology, an ‘I see for you’ is created,” [3]   as in television. Glassblowing is such a technology of fast production. Hank Murta Adams, comfortable in his Zinnia garden in Tennessee in the middle 1980s, recognized that the universal palette of glassblowers (we call it Kugler: prefabricated standardized color rods) is a borrowed palette tethered to efficiencies of speed and technology, an “I choose for you.” Zinnias became for him a slower, contrasting, living palette, one he continues to use in his work and in his life, even in adornment for the monumental wedding cake he made for his friend Susie Krasnican’s wedding. Casting with molten colors became the third, slowest palette of all. Unlike much in contemporary life, casting, Hank Murta Adams style, does not “see for you,” it does not “think for you” or “enjoy for you.” Adams castings are not a production craft but a reproduction and recording process that, like film,  slows things down, edits them, tints the colors, comes in close and personal or gazes fixedly at horrors.




“We demand of a picture what we demand of literature and music; dramatic interest, interior movement; we want a picture to be a little drama, something, even if only a landscape or still life, in which the eye can fix and involve itself.”


Clement Greenberg [4]   


Whether you are a believer or a skeptic, on reflection I want you to agree that this work exists for applause or shouts,  for at last we have, in glass, an engaging dramatist! A shout? An exclamation point? In glass? A crafted medium of brittle vessels? A transparent medium, hiding no secrets except its technology? A cold medium?


Yes. If there is a critique of craft, it is that the autopsy recovers no spiritual remainder. Extremes are required to resuscitate the vital forces: dramatic means. Hank Adams flagrantly abandons the visible world to technology, seeking to dramatize the invisible world of the heart:


“Work of the eyes is done,

do heartwork now

on those images in you, those captive ones;

for you conquered them: but now you don’t know them.”


Rainer Maria Rilke, Turning [5]


For a long time now, we have let technology see and even feel for us, just as we have seen through glass, without taking the time to process what we see. Adams has begun to unravel the enigma of heartwork with his long unopened molds, unseen colors, painfully slow processes, dense castings and dramatic endings. In Governor  (1995) the mouth is filled with copper: cut off, the slim bars would become teeth; left long, they are something stuffed in. Drama and enigma conjoined. A chipped edge does heartwork, is just enough to reveal the ruby red interior, evoking the drop of blood a doctor extracts to gauge health. That chip is in harmony with Adams philosophy: “Keep it direct,  simplify things so they are digestible.” Digestible with an occasional whiff of something nauseating.  He toughens the work because he doesn’t want things to be “casual, insincere, goofy,” except goofy in the Twilight Zone sense, Hank citing the famous episode where ghastly ugly creatures perceive themselves as beauties and us as creatures of horror. These dualities of looking and feeling,  beauty and beast, encircle Adams’ work, centering on his insight that “death is only fearful in the context of love.”


Hank says that “Health is the only important issue now” while in the next breath telling us that he is “not entirely sure what the health thing means.” [6]   He looks for a way to express his feelings: “HIV, among the most important things that’s happened in the 20th century, connected us, made us more aware of sharing flesh, aware of the old adage that ‘If you have your health you have everything’.” Before HIV, we could flaunt our individuality, we were invincible. But as the philosopher Spinoza wrote “ ...imagine that a small worm lives in the blood, whose sight is keen enough to distinguish the particles of blood...he would consider each particle of blood to be a whole, and ... could not know how all the parts are controlled by the universal nature of blood.” But in truth,  “blood has the character of a part and not of a whole...all bodies are surrounded by others...every body...must be considered a part of the whole universe,...and to be connected with the other parts. [7] “ Every part has connections to everything, needs to be receptive to the whole. In works like Cell (1996), Adams interconnects, binds and chains his castings, and in Casting the Trojan Horse [8]   (1994 on)  a small cast concrete temple (with cast windows) was built above the Pilchuck campus north of Seattle, de-centering the campus, disrupting its self centered vision, and reconnecting those on campus to the original spirit of the place and to one another.


HIV, which Hank regards as a “slap in the face of technology,” binds death intimately to love, in fierce opposition to the stated goal of medical technology: to drive a wedge between life (and love) and death. And yet without death their is no meaning to life-- Walter Benjamin: “The greater the meaning, the greater the subjection to death, because death digs out most deeply the jagged line of demarcation between physical nature and meaning. [9] “ I’m reminded of Hank at work in his studio, chipping away at his molds to recover the inner men and women that are his castings.  



As long as you catch self-thrown things

it’s all dexterity and venial gain--;

only when you’ve suddenly caught that ball

which she, one of the eternal players,

has tossed toward you, your center, with

a throw precisely judged, one of those arches

that exist in God’s great bridge-system:

only then is catching a proficiency,--

not yours, a world’s.


Rilke, Uncollected Poems


The sculptures bristle with receptors, antennae, funnels, receptacles intended to accept inporings of fluids, receive transmissions of waves,  catch balls, pull satellites into their orbit. Swizzler  (1995) has a locator mechanism, as does Bust with Locator (1995), which according to Adams has “Some kind of mechanical device to help us find our way, but we probably loose our way.” Other casts are dressed up with radar ears or cake pan epaulets on their shoulders, as if  mocking technology or echoing Adams: “We only tap a slight surface in the way we communicate. We’re now blossoming into new ways.” Many of these devices seem suitable for making a catch: for catching a virus? Some behave like tumors, upheavals emerging from deep inside the body. In Engulfed  the glass bust is surrounded by copper threads in a wind swept pattern, the result of handling and finishing, really quite an orderly record of the object’s life in the studio. Neat and buried alive.


All the castings share an inversion from Adams earliest works, c. 1979-1984. In the Dome series, images were protected within blown bubbles, sheltered and separate. In Hovering  (1984) a head floats within a Zeppelin form over a blasted landscape. Later, the domes became the heads, hollow inside, works that today look “sweet and saccharin” to the artist. None of these objects built bridges or make a catch. All were self-centered and secluded. Health issues and heartwork transformed them into the castings of the nineties.


Adams describes a performance piece he would like to enact at the Blenko Glass company in Milton, West Virginia, where he was head designer from 1988 to 1994. Using the factory’s non-stop annealer, he would create a continuous chain of glass links, forged at the furnace, annealed as it passes along the conveyor belt, emerging through the factory doors, carried to the town and out to the interstate highway: burning hot at one end even as it shatters on the pavement at the other, a dramatic illustration of the interconnectedness of everything, the absurdity and promise of technology: “another one of those arches that exist in God’s great bridge-system.”


I don’t know if Hank will forge that chain. I do know that his demanding work throws us a world, catches us squarely between the eyes, promises the joy of heartwork while it asks the most difficult of questions:


“These things, whose essential life you want to express, first ask you, “Are you free? Are you prepared to devote all your love to me, to lie with me as St. Julian the Hospitaller lay beside the leper, giving him the supreme embrace which no simple, fleeting love of one’s neighbor could accomplish, because its motive is love, the whole of love, all the love that exists on earth.”


Rilke in a letter to Baladine Klossowska, December 16, 1920


William Warmus

Ithaca, New York

September 2, 1996


This essay appeared in Glass magazine in Autumn, 1996




1-Hank Murta Adams’ legal name is John Murta Adams, Johnnie to family and old friends. Hank is a college nickname bestowed on him by Pamela Powers.


2-Unattributed quotations derive from interviews with the artist conducted in Lansing and Ithaca, New York on August 20 and 21, 1996, including a walk through the historical vegetable gardens at Cornell University, as well as subsequent telephone interviews in late August and early September.


3-Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agent Series, 1983. p.75.


4-Clement Greenberg, Perceptions and Judgments 1939-1944 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p.65.


5-Adams has books and a tape of Rainer Maria Rilke writings, given to him by his sister, a playwright. Quotations from Rilke used here are taken from: Edward Shaw (trans.), Uncollected Poems. New York: North Point, 1996 and Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Ahead of All Parting. New York: Modern Library, 1995.


6-Adams’ mother, Beverly, who he describe’s as “The bravest person I know” has been ill with MS for many years. The complexity of his feelings about health surely originates here.


7- John Wild, editor. Spinoza: Selections.  New York: Scribners, 1958. Letter to Henry Oldenburg (11.20.1665):pp.441-2


8-The American Arts and Crafts movement figure Henry Mercer focused Adams attention on the “Cement Age,” and cement as another casting material.


9-Susan Buck-Morss The Dialectics of Seeing,  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.  p.161