- Sculpture as Music and Music as MatterSelected Works of Terry Adkins
I attempt to make sculpture that is ethereal as music and music that physically approaches the visceral suggestion of matter.—Terry Adkins
I am a sculptor, musician and latter-day practitioner of the longstanding African-American tradition of ennobling worthless things. My work is primarily forged out of the accretion of found materials in a process called "potential disclosure" (as opposed to found object). Therein I attempt to clothe the potentialities that the articles themselves suggest, stripping away the unnecessary to get at the essence of things. My approach to the creative process is intuitive, driven by impulse and faith rather than by reason or dialectic critique.—Terry Adkins
To appreciate the salient qualities of Terry Adkins's art, one must heed his own description of the aesthetic that is the engine of his practice. His method involved careful observation, faith in the value of recuperating the unsung or the disregarded object, then showing it with passion and conviction, going beyond its thingness and seeing its "potential" to activate meaning and change the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. Artist, musician, teacher, and scholar, Adkins devoted his life to "studying, sorting, manipulating, and restructuring an eclectic array of [salvaged] materials that he repurposed for his installations, all while thinking music or listening to music or making music" (Page)." As he himself says, "My creative imagination has always been sparked by the potentialities that exist in other things, and all I try to do is unveil what's already there, sort of polish it, embellish it—to use a musical term" (qtd. in Page). Speaking of music, the "recitals" Adkins gave in conjunction with the exhibition of his installations often included musical performances, recitations, and rituals which were as much a part of activating the potential of the work as the objects themselves.1 In fact, to borrow a quote from Anthony Elms on David Hammons, Adkins, like David Hammons "[uses] music as structure, subject, landscape, and metaphor for conceptualizing a social blackness in [his] sculpture" (194). The following discussion will consider selected works which explore the place of music and performance in Adkins's installations.
Interest in Terry Adkins's work grows, as the world catches up to his vision. From the incipient stages of his career and onward, Adkins was ever looking for a way to capture the inextricable relationship between art and culture in music, videos, the visual arts, [End Page 4] print media, literature, etc. His amalgamating sensibility could, in part, be attributed to his upbringing. Adkins's familial inheritance was a love of music, science, history, and social justice, and in his art, all these cultural elements come together. His forebears were members of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the "talented tenth," and their battle cry of uplifting the race, exhibiting resourcefulness, pursuing an education, and valuing community were instilled in him and distilled in his work. His father, Robert H. Adkins, a Korean War veteran, chemistry and science teacher, and track and field coach at Parker Gray High School in Alexandria, loved music and played the organ, while his mother Doris Jackson, a nurse, played clarinet and piano. And perhaps Adkins's fascination with flight came in part from his uncle, Dr. Rutherford Adkins, a former Tuskegee Airman who flew fourteen combat missions and became the eleventh president of Fisk University.
Up until fifth grade Adkins attended an all-black Catholic school, then, after passing a rigorous test, entered a prestigious, predominantly white school, Ascension Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, from which he graduated. In interviews, he has acknowledged the impact that this education had with shaping his sensibility, as well as his scholarly fascination with the Latin underpinnings of the English language.2 As a mature artist, Adkins would give his art exhibitions and recitals Latin titles, threading their narratives with multiple cultural influences that combined high culture and popular culture in conversation. His artistic process mirrored this eclectic marriage of styles in the way Adkins enlisted the aid of the community in the process of creation, from collecting material to fabricating the object according to...