Adams was born in Topeka in 1897. He first studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, then at the Art Students League in New York with Kenneth Hayes Miller and George Bridgeman. He attended summer classes in Woodstock, New York, taught by Andrew Dasburg, who encouraged him to move to New Mexico in 1924, where Adams lived until his death.
He would be the last and youngest member of the Taos Society of Artists, and perhaps the most dedicated modernist of them all. He was also one of the most emotionally connected to the Taos Indians, teaching at the University of New Mexico, Taos. In 1938 He moved to Albuquerque during the winters, where he worked on nudes, portraits and still life, returning to Taos in the summer to focus on Indian subjects. He taught at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, as well, eventually earning a tenured professorship and a membership to the National Academy of Design. He died in 1966.
His compassionate regard for Hispanics and a renewed interest in landscape largely determined the subjects of his paintings. His blend of conservative and modernist styles made him a pivotal figure between the founders of the Taos Society of Artists and the second generation of artists, many of whom were sympathetic to new trends developing in New York and Europe. He was known as both a painter and a printmaker.