For an art exhibition, “the curatorial challenge was how to bring all of the information in the books to life, to make it emotional and aesthetic, not didactic,” said Dexter Wimberly, the executive director of Aljira: A Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, who organized the show with MAD’s Samantha De Tillio (MAD’s chief curator, Shannon Stratton, brought the show to the institution).
“Sanctuary” includes wallpaper printed from pages of the Green Books, but that’s about the only literal reference to the guides. Mr. Adams uses them “to suss out ideas about mobility.” He conjures the experience of the traveler who might have circled names in them, like Blue Duck Inn Grill, New Candle Light or Silver Moon, and reimagines what those places and the path to get there might have felt like. Anchoring the show, for instance, is a miniaturized highway, sitting around three feet off the ground.
It is a reminder that roads were among the country’s few unsegregated spaces, and as cars became more affordable and wages increased with industrial expansion in the 1920s and ’30s, African-Americans gained the kind of mobility they had long been denied. As the progressive sociologist Arthur Raper observed in 1940 with mild hyperbole, “Effective equality seems to come at about 25 miles an hour or above.”
But while the country’s young highways were littered with free enterprise — in 1934 the writer James Agee described them in Fortune magazine as “incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race” — much roadside commerce was off-limits to black travelers. Esso was the only chain of service stations that recognized that a dollar was no other color than green, and many hotel chains closed their doors to African-Americans until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“You hear stories from older people about how far they had to drive to get gas or stop. Some would have to keep gas in their car when they traveled. And a pot in their trunk,” Mr. Adams said. “I’ve thought a lot about the freedom people must have felt from the Green Books, not worrying about where to stop and what’s going to be on the other side, pre-Yelp.”
His work, while borrowing from the bright colors, patterns and geometric forms of modernist abstraction, has a very handcrafted feel. For a series of collages that surround the roadway, he used a vintage-looking commercial-grade fabric with a brick pattern to evoke the facades of buildings along the road. Bricks are one of his trademark motifs to evoke urban dwellings, jail cells and the modernist grid.
A 1940s Atlanta nightclub called the Top Hat was one of the spots that vividly captured Mr. Adams’s imagination. Hats, too, appear frequently in his work, in performances, videos, painting and sculpture, and he is rarely seen without one. On the day I visited his studio — the cellar of a prewar apartment building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, packed with fabric scraps, paint jars, books and other tools of his practice — he was wearing a black baseball cap with the initials D. A., along with a camouflage-patterned, paint-smeared apron and black clogs.
A row of felt hoops on the wall that suggested steering wheels were, in fact, brims cut from hats, he explained, while a stack of around 20 old-time-looking driving hats — or flat caps — sat on a nearby work table. Mr. Adams was getting ready to attach them to wooden wheels and place them on the roadway at MAD. Vaguely aerodynamic, the hats strangely elicit both car and driver at once. They also hark back to Mr. Adams’s memories of childhood.
While growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, he was visited frequently by relatives driving from Virginia or New York. “My great-aunts would wear these very particular pants outfits and driving gloves and little driving hats. It was very sporty, unlike the domestic look of the women in the house,” he recalled. “It was about travel culture, and it created in my mind a representation of liberation.”
The road that bisects MAD’s gallery space follows a path up, over and down the sides of free-standing wooden doors. Visitors must pass through them to traverse the road. “I’ve thought a lot about barriers, and accessibility, and obstacles, and perseverance,” explained Mr. Adams, whose recent solo show of collages at Tilton Gallery, his longtime New York dealer, also included references to roads.
The museum’s darkened room will be illuminated by small concrete houses cast from milk cartons and lit from within. Mr. Adams taught elementary school briefly between graduating from the Pratt Institute, in 1996, and earning his M.F.A. from Columbia, in 2003, and remembered how students transformed milk cartons into tiny homes, places of “nourishment, of revitalization,” he said.
Altogether, the show is a highly visceral experience, channeling some of life’s more underappreciated privileges: the freedom to stop at a diner, or to insert a key into a humble motel doorknob after a long day of driving.
Mr. Adams has spent his fair share of time in generic hotel rooms: Over the past two years he has had solo shows in London, Paris, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Omaha. A major influence, he said, is Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” (1940-41) — a powerful depiction of the mass movement of hat-wearing, suitcase-carrying African-Americans relocating North for industrial jobs, educational opportunities and liberation (perhaps with Green Books in their pockets).
If for Lawrence liberation meant freedom from Southern oppression, for Green, the creator of the Green Books, it meant the end of his business. “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,’’ he wrote in the 1949 edition. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
Mr. Adams is quick to recognize that the liberation of Lawrence’s migrants and Green’s readers is tenuous. “The project is really timely, considering all of the conversations and issues surrounding immigration and racial tension,” he said. “Things are happening that echo what the Green Books were trying to prevent. If anything, I want people to know how important it is to have freedom to go where you want to go.”