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Portraits

Robert Adams

Robert Adams in his studio 26.9.55. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

During the 1950’s and 60’s Adrian Flowers photographed the painter and sculptor Robert Adams on several occasions. One photo, taken around 1955 [AF 1750], shows Adams in his studio in London, sitting casually on a high stool made of welded metal, poring over a sketchbook on a drawing table. The form and construction of the stool suggests it was made by the artist. On a shelf are several of Adams’ sculptures. One, a small bronze work, part of the Growing Form series, dates from around 1953. Another relates to the ‘Penwith Forms’ series, and dates from 1955. Adams has dressed elegantly for the occasion of Flowers’ visit, and is wearing a white shirt and cravat. Behind the artist are rolls of drawings, cleverly suspended in loops of string. The drawing table is a fold-out affair, part of a room divider that also contains bookshelves. A large abstract painting can be glimpsed in the background. Another photograph taken on that same visit shows Adams working on a tall wooden sculpture. The sculpture stands on a workbench in the same studio, with its white-painted brick walls and overhead girders. On the walls are T-squares, a brace, saws and loops of wire. A third photograph shows Adams, his wife Patricia and their dog Tishy, surrounded by sculptures, including a welded metal piece from c. 1950, one of an abstract series inspired by drawings of dancers.

Robert Adams in his studio September 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers
Robert Adams in his studio with his wife Patricia and their dog Tishy.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Several years later, around 1960 [AF 3376], Flowers photographed Adams in a park, with houses in the background [perhaps Hampstead Heath?], standing beside a large sculpture, made of straight lengths of metal rod welded together. This work is likely Triangulated structure No. 1, its form evoking the facets of a crystalline rock formation. Another set of photographs [AF 4217, 3376] taken around 1961, show Adams standing in his studio, surrounded by tall welded-metal sculptures. By this date, the artist’s work has evolved, and his now making tall free-standing and wall-mounted abstract pieces, in which circular plate-like forms are counterpoised with slender vertical and horizontal rods and bars. Adams also appears more confident in this set of photographs, smiling, relaxed, leaning against the wall. Another set of negatives [AF 2576] are of Adams’ carved wood sculptures set on plinths, and wall-mounted reliefs, displayed within a classical house setting. The sculptures on plinths are paired forms, evoking the streamlined wings and fuselages of aeroplanes.

Robert Adams with his work, Triangulated Structure No. 1, 1961.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Adams had a good grounding in the technical aspects of sculpture. Having left school in Northampton aged fourteen, he worked for a local firm that manufactured agricultural machinery. From 1937 to 1946 he attended life drawing and painting classes at Northampton School of Art, and during WWII was a fire warden in Civil Defence. He first showed his work in a series of exhibitions held at the Cooling Gallery in London, along with other artist members of Civil Defence. In the post-war years he turned firstly to abstract painting, then sculpture, working mainly in wood, slate, plaster and stone. Although he remained a resolutely abstract artist, in Adams’ work there is always an underlying regard for the world of nature, and for plant and human forms. In 1949 he began to work in metal and for a decade after, in addition to making his own work, taught at the Central School of Art in London. He was influenced by, and became part of, the London Group of constructionist artists that included Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin. In 1947 Adams was included in the inaugural exhibition of Living Art, held in Dublin, as well as having the first of a series of exhibitions with Gimpel Fils in London. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Paris where he encountered the work of Brancusi and Julio Gonzalez. In 1949 he showed at Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris, the Redfern Gallery in London, and, the following year, at the Passedoit Gallery in New York. In 1951 he was invited to exhibit at the Sao Paulo Biennial and the following year was included with the group of young British sculptors in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale whose work, using innovative techniques and breaking with traditional approaches to realist sculpture, led Herbert Read to coin the term Geometry of Fear.


In 1955 Adams had an exhibition at the Victor Waddington Gallery in Dublin, and also showed at Rutgers University that same year. Included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s influential 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow, he was a frequent visitor to St. Ives, where he met Michael Snow, and in 1975 became a member of the Penwith Society. In 1962 a retrospective of his work was held at the Venice Biennale; another retrospective took place at the Campden Academy in Northampton in 1971, followed by one at Liverpool Tate in 1982. Adams was commissioned to make several public sculptures, including, in 1973, a large steel work for Kingswell in Hampstead. Beginning in the 1960’s, he also produced lithographs with abstract geometric designs, such as Screen II. His work has been catalogued by Alistair Grieve, in Robert Adams 1917-1984: A Sculptor’s Record (Tate Gallery 1992) and The Sculpture of Robert Adams (Lund Humphries 1992).

Robert Adams’ work featured in the 2022 exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965.

Robert Adams, early 1962. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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Portraits

Brian Wall sculptor

(b. 5th September 1931)

Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, on 6th February 1963

In 1956, Adrian Flowers visited the sculptor Brian Wall at his studio at Custom House Lane, Porthmeor in St. Ives. Using 120mm colour transparency stock, Flowers photographed a series of painted wood constructions by Wall, setting them up not in the studio but in the open air, on the flat sands of the beach. With titles such as Construction No. 1 and Construction No. 10, the modular black and white frames of these early works by Wall suggest the steel supports of Modernist buildings, while their inner panels, painted in primary colours, are in some ways the realisation in three-dimensional form of paintings by Mondrian.

Brian Wall with his “Construction” sculptures on St Ives Beach, 1956

Flowers photographed Wall and his sculptures several times over the following decades. A sequence of black and white portrait shots taken in February 1963 show Wall assuming various poses; seated, in close-up, head and shoulders, smiling, smoking a cigarette, making funny expressions, hand under chin. He appears by turns thoughtful, quizzical, good-humoured, tough and determined. One sheet of contact prints shows him seated on a high stool. A folder [ref 4456] also contains several large-scale prints, made from these negatives.

Contact sheet, Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, 6th February 1963

Born in Paddington on 5th September 1931, Brian Wall’s childhood was spent in London, although during WWII he was evacuated to Yorkshire. After the war he left school, aged fourteen, to work as a glassblower in a factory. In 1949 he enlisted in the RAF for two years, where he trained as an aerial photographer (as had Adrian Flowers and Len Deighton), before enrolling at Luton College of Art. Deciding to become a painter, in 1954 Wall settled in St. Ives, where initially he worked at the Tregenna Castle Hotel. Shortly afterwards he met Peter Lanyon, who helped him find a studio in Custom House Lane, where Wall worked alongside Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Sandra Blow. In 1955 he was introduced by Denis Mitchell to Barbara Hepworth, becoming her first studio assistant. He also met David Lewis, who had written on the work of Mondrian and Brancusi, and in 1956 was elected a member of the Penwith Society, exhibiting his work in the Society’s annual shows.

Adrian Flowers photographing Brian Wall, February 1963

During these years, starting with the painted wood constructions, Wall developed his own sculpture practice, but quickly moved on making works in welded steel. The year after his first one-person show at the Architectural Association in 1957, he was included in the Arts Council exhibition Contemporary British Sculpture, and he also showed with the Drian and Grabowski galleries. In 1959, an article on his work was published in Architectural Design. Moving back to London, Wall became active in fine art education, serving on the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, and also on the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1961-2, he taught at Ealing College of Art, before being appointed Head of Sculpture at the Central School of Art (now Central St. Martins), where William Turnbull and Barry Flanagan were also teaching. In 1961 Wall represented England at the 2nd Paris Biennale, and over the following years his work was shown in exhibitions throughout Britain. He featured in Bryan Robertson and John Russell’s 1965 Private View, a book documenting the rise of London as a centre for contemporary art.

A subsequent set of photographs [ref 5562] taken in London by Adrian Flowers record a series of medium and smaller sized welded steel sculptures by Wall, such as Untitled Steel Sculpture, Black 1964. Some were photographed in a studio setting, others in a laneway outside the artist’s studio. Several feature discs, and circles juxtaposed with straight pieces of steel, such as One Disc (1966); others are purely angular and geometric. Other photographs show the artist in his home, with family members, sculptures displayed on tables, and a geometric abstract painting on the wall.

In 1967 Wall had a solo exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and was included in the Tate’s British Sculpture in the Sixties. On 25th March of the following year his Always Advancing, a large public sculpture in the form of two A’s, was sited at Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire. In 1968, Wall’s sculptures were included in an exhibition organised by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, New British Painting and Sculpture, that toured to cities in North America, including Portland, Vancouver, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. The artist visited the US several times, becoming friendly with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the writer Clement Greenberg. In 1969, when the exhibition was shown at the art museum at Berkeley University, he was invited to become a visiting Professor there, and returned the following year, becoming a permanent faculty member in 1972. Although there were artists working in steel before Wall settled in San Francisco, they tended to work in less ‘pure’ modes. His presence in the area influenced several artists, including Fletcher Benton, to begin working directly, in a more abstract way, with welded steel. Taking up US citizenship, Wall became recognised more as an American sculptor and was appointed Chair of the Art Department at Berkeley, a post he held until his retirement in 1994. Throughout his teaching career, he continued to make his own work, setting up a studio and workshop in Oakland, where his assistant is the sculptor Grant Irish. He prefers to make his sculptures directly, working with pieces of steel on a one to one scale, rather than constructing maquettes, or working from drawings. This invests Wall’s work with qualities of lightness that are often absent in large-scale abstract metal sculptures. His pieces appear to teeter, tilt and turn. Circles, cylinders, I-beams and plates hover and jostle playfully. In spite of the massive scale, and the industrial materials he employs, there is a palpable pleasure and joy in his work.

Although Wall rejects the term “Constructivist” to describe his work—on the basis that his work does not relate to architecture, but emerges from a process of intuitive development—there is no mistaking the Central European and revolutionary Russian tradition of industrial materials used to make abstract art. This Constructivist tradition had been promoted in Cornwall during the war years by Naum Gabo, leading Ben Nicholson to adopt a pure minimalist approach to abstraction. Nicholson was an early influence on Wall who, from the outset, steered clear of the expressionist styles of Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, as well as the organic forms of Hepworth and Henry Moore.

A retrospective exhibition of Wall’s sculptures, organised by the Seattle Art Museum in 1982, toured to SFMoMa. The exhibition included two early St. Ives painted wood constructions; Metamorphosis (1955) and Right Angle Deck Construction with Vertical Movement (1956)—both revealing how close the artist had been to architecture at the outset of his career. Although most of the works in the Seattle show were from the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the brightly-painted Early Yellow (1975), there were more recent sculptures too, including October Jump (1981), in which two I-beam girders are supported by cylindrical and plate steel forms. Through the last four decades, Wall continued to exhibit in the UK, showing at Flowers Gallery in 2008 and 2011; he also showed with Flowers in Los Angeles, Max Hutchinson in New York, and with John Berggruen and Hackett Mills in San Francisco. In 2006, a monograph on his work, written by Chris Stephens, was published by Momentum Press 2006, and in 2014 Wall established a foundation to benefit working artists. As recently as 2015 a solo show held at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University featured sculptures monumental in scale but light in feeling, reflecting Wall’s interest in Zen Buddhism—an interest which began in St. Ives in the 1950’s, and continues to inspire his work to the present day.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

For further reading, refer to Brian Wall by Chris Stephens, Suzaan Boettger and Barry Munitz. Momentum publishing 2006.

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This is Tomorrow

Mary Martin with model of installation Environment for the Whitechapel exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ taken from contact sheet of photgraphs by Adrian Flowers

In 1955 Adrian Flowers photographed artists Mary and Kenneth Martin in their studio in London. At the time, Mary was working on her maquette for Environment, an installation she, in collaboration with architect John Weeks, created for the This is Tomorrow exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery the following year. As was usual at the time, Martin repaid Adrian for his work by gifting him Expanding Form, a three dimensional work made of Perspex, stainless steel and wood. Years later, in 1984, Adrian loaned this work to the retrospective exhibition of Mary Martin’s work, held at the Tate Gallery. One of his 1955 photographs was also used for the catalogue that accompanied this exhibition.

Born in Folkestone, Kent in 1907, Mary Martin (née Balmford) was one of the most influential abstract artists to work in Britain in the post war period. In the latter half of the 1920’s she studied at both Goldsmiths’ College and the Royal College of Art. In 1930 she married fellow student Kenneth Martin; they had two sons, John and Paul. Although Mary died prematurely, in 1969, she left behind a legacy of artworks that have continued to shape people’s view of what “Modern Art” meant to Britain in the post-war decades. Having raised, along with her husband Kenneth, a family during the 1940’s, Martin was in no position to become a full-time artist until 1950, by which time she was in her ‘forties. Her career spanned just two decades, but during that time she made a considerable impression, achieving recognition for an intellectually rigorous approach to the making of art. Her first abstract reliefs date from 1951. Commissioned to curate an exhibition of abstract art for the Festival of Britain in 1950, Kenneth was a catalyst in Martin’s decision to abandon figurative painting in favour of abstract art. Influences included the work of Piet Mondrian, J. W. Power’s The Elements of Pictorial Construction, and artist friends, notably Victor Pasmore and Adrian Heath. Whether constructed in two or three dimensions, Martin’s work was shaped by classical geometries and vectors, with echoes of the art of paper folding, or Origami. With its mathematical basis—not least an interest in Fibonacci sequence and the ‘Golden Section’—her work was also in many ways an artistic response to the technological developments then taking place in the world of logic and computing, reflecting the philosophies of both Plato and of George Boole. As with computer switching, many of her constructions contain elements that appear open or closed, black or white, positive or negative—operating visually in much the same way as hinged windows on the façade of a building. This architectural quality in her work is not accidental;  in 1956 Martin collaborated with Kenneth Martin and the architect John Weeks, in building an installation in the influential Whitechapel Gallery exhibition This is Tomorrow, and not long afterwards designed a free-standing wall for Musgrave Park hospital  Belfast. Her monumental frieze-like wall construction, made for the University of Stirling in 1969 and experienced by thousands of students, still serves as a powerful expression of how Modernism shaped British society and intellectual thought during these years. What was important to Martin was that her work could operate in a purely architectonic way. She was less interested in applying artworks as an afterthought to a building. She was an influential artist, not least because of her writings on art and architecture, many of which were published in the Dutch architectural magazine Structure. 

Mary Martin with Black Relief 1957(?), perspex and wood. Photograph from Tate Catalogue 1984

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©