INFLUENTIAL AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING artist and educator Terry Adkins (1953-2014) died of heart failure on Feb. 8. An interdisciplinary conceptual artist and musician, his work is currently featured in the group show Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The founder of Lone Wolf Recital Corps and a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, 60-year-old Adkins was represented by Salon 94. The gallery released a statement on Feb. 8 announcing his death.
The mass email message signed by Salon 94 founder Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and partners Alissa Friedman and Fabienne Stephan, read in part: “Terry was an intrepid and accomplished artist, performer, musician, and educator who approached his life and work with enormous spirit, audacity, humor, and indefatigable intellect…[His] influence will be felt by younger artists for years to come.”
“Nenuphar,” Adkins’s first solo gallery show in a decade, was exhibited at Salon 94 through Jan. 11, 2014, and “Terry Adkins: Recital,” a 30-year career retrospective was on view last year at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum and Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.
According to Block, “Adkins has described his approach to art-making as being similar to that of a composer. His sculptures re-purpose and combine a range of materials, such as fiberglass propellers, wooden coat hangers, parachute fabric, and a variety of musical instruments in a process that the artist calls ‘potential disclosure,’ which aims to reveal the dormant life in inanimate objects.”
Combining sculpture and live performance, he invoked the legacies of groundbreaking figures including W.E.B. Du Bois, Bessie Smith, Matthew Henson, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King Jr., Beethoven and John Coltrane, individuals he viewed as ignored or under-appreciated. Adkins explains his approach to art making and the concepts presented in “Recital” in the 2012 video below.
In the video, Adkins recalls going home recently to visit his mother—he hadn’t been there for years—and attending church again. The experience gave her great joy and elicited in him a kind of comfort in recognition, both personal and artistic:
This early exposure to a space—an architectural space that was meant for ceremony as well as contemplation—had a profound affect on me and I think you can see the evidence of that throughout these spaces [of the exhibition]. The symmetry of it. The ceremony of it. The relationship of the orator to the audience. I don’t know whether faith is the right word. I think it has to do with my belief that art can be a force for change.
— Terry Adkins
Emerging artist Heather Hart was among the first to take to social media to pay tribute to Adkins, calling him “a truly brilliant artist and mentor.”
A truly brilliant artist and mentor has passed today far far too soon. His work was hugely influential and… http://t.co/9zW1UUuVC9
— heather hart (@heat_her_hart) February 9, 2014
In fall 2011, Bomb magazine published a fascinating conversation between Adkins and Sanford Biggers, who also considered the late artist a mentor and followed a similar path—HBCU undergraduate study, residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem and PS1, and teaching at an Ivy League University. Adkins views were embedded in many of the questions he posed to Biggers. Among them:
As black artists we have always been relegated to the notion of race, identity, and image, which in a certain sense perpetuates conservative notions of ’30s social realism, no matter how you clothe it with the contemporary. Black artists who don’t care to deal with the subject matter that is posited in image and arrested at the surface of race are usually rendered more invisible. — Terry Adkins, Bomb Magazine
“Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” by Valerie Cassel Oliver, et al. (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 165 pages). | Pages 44-45: Feature images from Adkins’s 1995 work “Last Trumpet,” which he revisited in a 2012 performance at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
In 2007, visitors to Brooklyn’s Rotunda Gallery were greeted by a banner hanging above the entrance that read, “A Man was Lynched Yesterday,” courtesy of Adkins. As the New York Times reported, the sign was inspired by “one that W. E. B. Du Bois placed outside the office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1930s, and it is part of a larger piece by Mr. Adkins that includes copies of government files on Du Bois, who was marked as an agitator.”
Adkins’s profound contributions, cultural insight and radical performances live on. Videos document him discussing childhood influences in music and art, and 2013 performances of Postlude (Corpus Specere) and At Osiris, as a part of “Radical Presence” at the Studio Museum. In November, he was among the artists selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial which opens in March, and “Terry Adkins: Recital,” a complement to his retrospective exhibition and the first volume to survey his three decades of work, is slated to be published in June 2014 by Prestel CT
Photo: Luca Nostri