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Derrick Adams

The unicorns have arrived at Rockefeller Center for their summer residency.

Last week Derrick Adams was on hand for the unveiling of his delightful public art installation, “Funtime Unicorns,” located within Rock Center’s Channel Gardens. The work spoke to an eager and younger demographic than most of his gallery exhibitions: children.

“It was so exciting when I walked over and saw kids patiently waiting for the barricades to be removed so they could run over and get on [the unicorns]” says Adams of witnessing the initial reception to his functional sculptures, manifested as playground objects and placed in collaboration with the Art Production Fund.

“Funtime Unicorns” marks the launch of Derrick Adams Editions, a venture for the artist to reach new audiences and experiment with different formats. “When I’m making work, sometimes I say to myself, why can’t this be a real object?’ I pose that question to myself and then I start thinking about the possibilities,” says Adams.

“Funtime Unicorns” evolved from the playground installation Adams created several years ago for the Faena Hotel in Miami. When he was invited to participate in the 2022 public art program at Rockefeller Center, Adams returned to the idea of functional art objects created for public spaces. His installation encompasses four identical unicorn sculptures, rendered in black with rainbow-colored manes and tails. Broad smiles on the creatures signal a friendly invitation to participate.

The sculptures extend beyond the typical parameters of public art; audiences are encouraged to climb on and physically interact with the pieces. “More than ever, people want to be more connected to things. People have more of a desire to be included, not just spectators, looking at things from a distance. People want to be physically engaged with the art,” Adams says, adding that the youthful approach isn’t age-specific.

Witnessing that impulse to jump on and play with the work marked the installation’s completion. “Without that, the sculpture wouldn’t have been a success,” says Adams. “It’s a reminder for people to feel playful,” he adds. “To remind people of the freeness of being young, the freeness of exploring and play and those things that we sometimes forget as adults.”

The sculptures bring to life imagery from Adams’ “Floater” series of paintings, which feature Black bodies atop whimsical pool floats in scenes of leisure. When Adams began painting the series, he looked to existing popular inflatable float designs, which led him to reevaluate the idea of a traditional white unicorn.

“I realized that all of these objects are pretty much imaginary, and if they could be imaginary, then maybe I should be able to imagine them having a different tone or a different color,” he says. “That’s when the unicorn turned into this Black object, still using the same traditional format of what we know as a unicorn.” The unicorn serves as a symbol of magic and hopefulness, echoing Adams’ depiction of the Black experience and perseverance through colorful imagery rooted in joy.

Although sociopolitical ideas percolate throughout Adams’ work, it’s that idea of liberation and play — filtered through a child’s perspective and experience — that “Funtime Unicorns” homes in on. When kids catch sight of the unicorns amid the urban landscape, they aren’t necessarily thinking about how the sculptures relate to race or gender or even the artist behind them. They’re more likely to approach the objects with a sense of fun, delight and agency. “Kids had a certain way of ownership on the objects that was essential to the offering,” says Adams. “The whole time I was making [the installation], I was thinking ‘I’m making it for them.’”

The sculptures also speak to collectors, and are available in an edition of 50 priced at $50,000 each. The Rock Center unicorns will be up through Labor Day; afterward, Adams is looking at the possibility of donating them to public playgrounds in his Baltimore hometown and around New York. He’s also received interest from collectors and organizations to purchase and place them in community spaces.

Exactly where they’ll end up is still to be determined. With unicorns, you never know.

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