Kerstin, next to an old-growth stump, Coos County, Oregon, 1999
Kerstin, next to an old-growth stump, Coos County, Oregon 1999

The Adamses donate money, purchase ads, and write op-ed pieces in the Daily Astorian, waging oppositional battle on causes ranging from Patriot Act invasions of privacy to the proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Astoria to a Chinese garden now under construction in the city’s downtown. (The couple believes the site and the money would be better suited for a new library.) “Bob is extremely diffident,” says his next-door neighbor, Tom Duncan. “He doesn’t get out there personally. He finds out who is doing something, gives money when he can, and offers encouragement and criticism. He’s a teacher much more than a politician.”

Far from being an angry local gadfly, Adams is quick to sing praises of even the smallest efforts to improve Astoria: galleries “seriously trying to stretch the market as far as it will go,” a bookstore with a decent selection of art books, an art supply store he says rivals anything in Portland, and a recent “lovely baroque concert” by five local musicians, one a city council member “with the voice of an angel.”                         

 But, as he has also said during nearly every visit I’ve made, he and Kerstin are thinking of leaving. The latest affront is new zoning allowing for a “wall of condos” along the waterfront. “Friends ask, ‘Where will you go?’” he says. “Of course, there’s no answer,” he adds with a grin. “It’s like asking, ‘What state room would you like?’ on the Titanic.” 

His irritations blossom from deeply rooted ideals. Yale’s Chuang, for instance, recalls his first dinner with Adams. After ordering, the then-69-year-old artist turned to the then-29-year-old curator and asked, “If I were to ask you to cite evidence that this experiment that we call America has been worthwhile, what would you say?” Caught flat-footed by such a profound question in the first minutes of getting to know someone, Chuang proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Adams smiled and added his own heroes: writers and artists like Emily Dickinson and Edward Hopper. 

“I had not met another American citizen who thought about his country so much,” says Chuang. “Every time we got together, we’d talk about life and values and what you believe in. It changed my life.”

At the start of the five years spent working on the retrospective, Chuang recalls Adams contending his newly finished Turning Back would be his final book. Yet, even as they spent countless hours developing the exhibition, overseeing the reprinting of books, and building the sweeping catalog, Adams produced work for three entirely new books: Sea Stories and This Day, both images of the Oregon Coast, and Skogen, a moody exploration of the coastal forests. “That’s the kind of guy he is,” says Chuang. “He puts everything on the line. And that’s the way we worked together: we didn’t hold anything in reserve.”

So, too, with the Portland Art Museum show. “The love that he has for Oregon is so powerful but also can be very quiet,” says Dolan. “I hope people will spend time with the prints. He is someone who wants us to pay a lot of attention to this little box resting on paper.”