Derrick Adams Biography

'What can I reveal that has not been shown? Black people—not entertaining, just being, living. Letting people deal with that as reality.'–Derrick Adams

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Derrick Adams celebrates and expands the dialogue around contemporary Black life and culture through scenes of normalcy and perseverance. He has developed an iconography of joy, leisure, and the pursuit of happiness with a multidisciplinary practice that encompasses paintings, sculptures, collages, performances, videos, and public projects. Adams synthesises representational imagery with planar Cubist geometry to produce multifaceted figures and faces that address the richness of the Black experience.

Born in Baltimore in 1970, Adams lives and works in New York. He received his BFA from Pratt University, New York, in 1996 and graduated with an MFA from Columbia University, New York, in 2003. Adams has held numerous teaching positions and is currently a tenured assistant professor in the School of Visual, Media and Performing Arts at CUNY Brooklyn College.

His installation Sanctuary was first exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, in 2018. Inspired by The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook for Black American road-trippers during an era when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-white people was widespread. The mixed-media installation reimagines safe destinations of relaxation and leisure for the Black American traveler during the mid-twentieth century.

In his Floaters paintings (2016–2020), Adams represents Black figures relaxing in the water on various inflatables, positing that respite itself is a political act when embraced by Black communities. This work inspired Funtime Unicorns (2022), a whimsical installation in New York's Rockefeller Center of rideable playground unicorns. Adams's ongoing Style Variation paintings, the focus of the exhibition LOOKS (2021–2022) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, depict wigged mannequin heads in tribute to the transformative and expressive power of personal style and self-adornment.

Adams's public art projects include Around the Way (2019), a commission by MTA Arts & Design at the LIRR Nostrand Avenue Station in Brooklyn. Composed in vibrant coloured glass, its eighty-five panels fuse figures with natural and architectural elements to convey the diversity and vitality of the neighbourhood. In 2021, he completed Our Time Together, a panoramic ninety-three-foot mural and sculptural installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Representing locations of intergenerational congregation for the city's Black community, the work combines historic photographs with dynamic figures to portray a continuum of past and present.

His site-specific installation for the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2021–2022), pictures cars driving past billboards for two classics of 1990s Black cinema, Juice and Set It Off, exploring how popular culture permeates contemporary reality. The City Is My Refuge is an immersive work of public art sited throughout Penn Station's upper-level concourse in 2023. Commissioned by the Art at Amtrak program, Adams's installation presents abstracted faces that emerge from dense patterns of foliage, uniting humanity with the natural world.

Adams's Motion Picture Paintings series (2020–2022) is the focus of I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You at the FLAG Foundation, New York (2023). These expansive panels combine references to movies, music, and the artist's observations of everyday moments. Juxtaposing stylised figures and evocative text in cinematic compositions, the paintings explore Black culture as it is both lived and imagined—and how art informs identity.

In 2022, Adams established Charm City Cultural Cultivation, an organisation to support and encourage underserved communities in the city of Baltimore through events conducted by three entities: The Last Resort Artist Retreat, a residency programme that subscribes to the concept of leisure as therapy for the Black creative; The Black Baltimore Digital Database, a collaborative counter-institutional space for collecting, storing, and safekeeping the data of local archival initiatives; and Zora's Den, an online community of Black women writers started in January 2017, which has since expanded into in-person writing workshops, a writers' circle, and a monthly reading series that strive to promote instruction, support, and social engagement.

Text courtesy Gagosian.

Derrick Adams
featured artworks

Floater 91 by Derrick Adams contemporary artwork painting, works on paper, drawing, mixed media
Derrick Adams Floater 91 Acrylic, pencil, fabric, on paper
127 x 127 cm
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Derrick Adams
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Gagosian contemporary art gallery in 980 Madison Avenue, New York, United States
Gagosian Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris +6
Lévy Gorvy Dayan contemporary art gallery in New York, United States
Lévy Gorvy Dayan Hong Kong, London, New York

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