“Justin let me squeeze one the other day,” the art historian Alex Kitnick said at Skarstedt’s Chelsea gallery one recent evening. The Justin in question was the painter Justin Adian; the groped object was one of Adian’s canvas-on-foam works that are currently on view at the gallery. Adian, who sat in an armchair across from Kitnick, chuckled and nodded.
“They are cushions,” Kitnick later added, “but I also think of them as inflated or pumped up somehow. You want to touch them. There’s a frustration, maybe, that you can’t quite feel them.”
Adian concurred. “I think of them as bodies pushed together, pushing upwards from the surface they’re on,” he said.
Adian’s work is, as Kitnick put it, by turns “squishy” and “sexy.” With their minimal, drably colored forms and plushy look, Adian’s paintings have a weirdly sensual aspect to them. But they’re also intentionally cold and, as Kitnick also pointed out, they refer to art by Frank Stella and Blinky Palermo, whose work is removed and intellectual.
Adian didn’t deny this when he spoke with Kitnick. He cited Ellsworth Kelly’s minimalist experiments with color as one of his major inspirations, and he and Kitnick are Stella fanboys. The two had a good time nerding out about the sides of Stella’s shaped canvases and the pencil marks on them. “I love the tears on the sides, where he has to cut the canvas, and you see it because he can’t really fold at that crease,” Adian told Kitnick.
In addition to having an interest in Stella, Adian has a sense of humor. With his Santa Claus–like brownish beard and his armfuls of tattoos, the New York–based artist also seems to have a good time when he works. Slip It In (2015), a series of black bars interspersed with pink ones, seems, at first, to be another experiment with geometry in the vein of Stella. But, as Adian explained, “One of the artists I liked before I got into art was Pettibon, from the Black Flag covers. I wanted to make a piece that was like a homage to him.” The work shares its name with the 1984 album by Black Flag—Adian’s favorite by the punk band.
“I was intrigued the other day, when we were talking about the show, about the wide range of references,” Kitnick said. How does Adian arrange his influences, which include Fred Sandback and furniture?
“I mean, whatever gets in my head,” Adian said. “I don’t really arrange things by high/low. It all just kind of comes out in the same.”
Did that mean there was a coldness in Adian’s work? Kitnick gestured toward Fortune Teller (2015), a square turned on an edge and cut into four slices. Three of the pieces are deep green; the fourth is a cool blue. “It’s interesting because many times, I think we think of modernist abstraction as a kind of impersonal kind of art,” Kitnick said. “Maybe you think of color-field painting, or even going back to De Stijl or Piet Mondrian.”
“[Mondrian’s work is] kind of cold and a lot of what I was talking about, but it’s also kind of warm,” Adian responded. “In the early works, you can see a lot of the paintbrush and the hand. It seems like there’s generosity to it.” Adian sees his work in a similar way, occasionally leaving in drips for eagle-eyed viewers so people know the works were made with care.
Adian can be a bit of a control freak. He feels like he has to engage with “Chelsea church-style galleries.” “I designed them for a wall, and that’s the only the way they can be handled,” he said. “And you know, I think it’s just trying to elicit as much control of the work, even though it’s in the world.”
“What do you mean by that?” Kitnick asked.
“Oh, you know, because work goes out and goes to some other venue,” Adian said. “I don’t want anyone else making any choices for my work.”
Adian and Kitnick also discussed the limited color palette and shapes of the work on view. Adian explained that he used industrial paint from the Netherlands, which is different from what’s available in America. The Dutch have colors like van Gogh Yellow and Split-Sole Shoe White.
“I have a pair of white split-sole shoes,” Kitnick said, to which Adian responded, “That’s awesome.”
An audience member asked Adian if, in the future, he’d go beyond using two or three colors. “Yeah, I’m using three or four,” Adian told him. “Big step.”