Adams was not quite a famous artist when he died in 1984. He was respected more than celebrated and major honours did not come his way. When he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, in 1952 and 1962, he shared the pavilion with other, lesser artists. For about a quarter of a century of his later career, Adams's work was overshadowed by the innovations of younger sculptors. His 1971 retrospective toured from Northampton to the Camden Arts Centre, not terribly glorious venues. There hasn't recently been much of a market for his work and the sculptures in this show have been in store for years. Yet here they are, some 50 of them, and one cannot look at them without feeling impressed.
He was a natural, one of those artists whose innate sense of form bestowed calm and lucidity on everything he produced. Many modern sculptors need years making complicated works before they find a simpler expression. Adams was happily economical from the first. It may sound ungracious to say so, but I think he was a simple man. No signs of struggle are found in his work, though there is plenty of evidence that his life was not an easy one. Instinct rather than intellect led him, and with excellent results. Just on the basis of this exhibition I rate Adams higher than his more prominent contemporaries. Ken Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows all have their virtues: but none gave himself up to sculpture so completely.
Adams, a working-class Midlands boy with a bit of training from night classes, was sent by the Gimpels to Paris. He saw the point of Giacometti's and Picasso's distortions of the human figure. But Adams was not really a figurative artist and took more from Picasso's open wire constructions. One piece from 1950, just over a foot high, has the feeling of a compressed architectural project. So have an elmwood sculpture of the following year and a sturdy piece in teak, half like a body and half like a built monument. In fact Adams's innovative abstract sculpture was more influenced by architecture than by previous three-dimensional art.
His sculpture would have been a splendid adjunct to the buildings being erected around the time of the Festival of Britain. But he did little work with architects. Various public pieces are conscientiously examined in Alastair Grieve's The Sculpture of Robert Adams (Lund Humphries, pounds 60) and placed in the context of his development. Grieve cannot bring himself to say so, but the record is one of failure. Not on Adams's part, but on the part of British architects and their patrons. At Gimpels is the maquette for Architectural Screen of 1956, eventually used by the Miesian architect Werner Ruhnau for a building in Germany. And in England? A fountain in a primary school, a relief in Hull and a screen outside the Heathrow customs shed.
No one has explained why British architects have no taste in art. It's a fact of life, yet artists continue to hope that they might be fellow spirits. Adams's true comrades were the abstract painters and sculptors of the mid-1950s, Victor Pasmore, Adrian Heath and Terry Frost.
Some of the best work at Gimpels is of the time when he was still with this group but had taken to welded sculpture. In some ways Tall Spike Form of 1956 has a period look, with those elongated curves so beloved by Fifties artists. Yet it's genuinely accomplished, quite good enough to belong to the Tate Gallery, which owns no Adams sculpture from this period. There are many more good things at Gimpels. A reflection of our times is that they are all surprisingly cheap.
Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies St, London W1 (071-493 2488), to 13 Feb (closed Sat afternoon, Sun).
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