Terry Adkins (1953–2014)

Terry Adkins during his performance, The Last Trumpet, at the Performa Biennial 2013.

THE FIRST TIME I saw Terry Adkins perform live was at Third Streaming, an experimental space with an interdisciplinary focus in New York. It was May 2012, and we had gathered for the premiere of the Lone Wolf Recital Corps’s Atum (Honey from a Flower Named Blue). Terry founded the Corps in Zurich in 1986 as a changeable, nomadic performance group, and this evening it featured a choice quartet—Charles Gaines, Kamau Amu Patton, Cavassa Nickens, and of course Terry himself. After the performance, as was our ritual, most of us gathered around the precarious table in the compressed space that is Third Streaming’s kitchen to engage in lengthy and superfluous cogitations about art and life.

While I had met Terry before, we hadn’t yet had an extensive conversation, and I recall being immediately struck by his voice. His tongue texture was slippery with the South, flipping words from his lips in a lazy, staccato cadence, intensely dense yet stretched like wisps of cirrus clouds floating on elongated, silky vowels. We were a generation apart, but this Southern voice became one of many correlations between Terry and me that we identified that day. I learned that Terry, like me, was a consequence of the American South: He was from Washington, DC, and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia; I was born in Atlanta, reared in South Carolina. I recognized Terry’s voice because it was the voice of a generation of Southern black men. It evoked my father’s and uncle’s aural registers: a piquant sonic range that derives from having, generations ago, adopted/adapted a vocabulary that was not our own, and making do with it by making it do. “His very words are action words,” as Zora Neale Hurston describes it in “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934). “Everything illustrated . . . [He] thinks in hieroglyphics.”

That evening in May, Terry volleyed questions at me. These questions were litmus tests, ways of pinning down where I stood on issues he cared most about: whose work inspired my own, what my thoughts were on representation in art by black artists, and so on. He then advised I read an essay he’d published in the Journal of Black Studies in 2004 titled “Notes on the Precious Few A.D.”

The truth is I did not read Terry’s essay until I was asked to do this unthinkable thing, to reflect on his life and work. I learned of his untimely passing on the afternoon of February 8 as I was leaving the memorial service for José Esteban Muñoz, a mentor and visionary professor in performance studies at New York University, also gone too soon. In the context of this double loss, Terry’s eloquent essay on the “precious few” was a revelation. In it, Terry traces his personal experiences with the artist and teacher Aaron Douglas while Terry was a student at Fisk University from 1971–75, describing the institution’s profound camaraderie. He elucidated, in his poetic style, a distinction between the generation of black abstract artists who preceded him, and who significantly influenced his art, including Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Alvin Loving, David Hammons, Jack Whitten, and Martin Puryear. He also discussed those artists whom he considered his peers: They were “the precious few” because they had survived, having avoided the Vietnam War since they were too young to enlist or be drafted and who were determined to become professional artists. Terry’s recollections of Professor Douglas uncannily resemble comments about Terry himself by myriad black artists, especially men. Terry’s personal outreach toward and generous mentorship of black artists is legendary; in fact, I would be hard pressed to think of one black male artist I know to whom Terry did not extend some semblance of support or brutally honest opinion.

“I am from the school of the Miles Davis how-dare-you-ism,” Terry wrote, “that deals with the principles of what Afro-Atlantic culture is, not through the appearance of it in images, but through the principles that guide it that are a very high order of abstract thinking.” He gave us an original elaboration of blackness in abstraction, that jagged harmony, that craggy expression of feelings that posits radiant possibilities. It is blackness as an aesthetic sensibility and also, equally, a technique of being in the world. It is what Hurston, in describing black spirituals, called “glorious individualistic flights that make up their own songs.”

In Terry’s hands and voice, blackness in abstraction is an alluring, evocative journey in which beauty and affect transcend the bounds of form. What truly mattered was what Terry called “potential disclosure,” and what I want to describe is the peculiar alchemy that occurs when concepts as varied as Eastern philosophical systems and black American cultural traditions and multimedia convocations of video, text, sculpture, and/or music coalesce, becoming the highly affective experiences he called “Recitals.” Terry’s wizardry brought these seemingly incommensurate elements into a sustained and inconclusive dialogue, one that grips the beholder because each ingredient in his art supersedes its individual qualities when taken collectively, as a whole.

“My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be, and sculpture as ethereal as music is,” Terry remarked. “It’s kind of challenging to make both of those pursuits do what they are normally not able to do.” My recollection is that this was the final point of recognition between us that night around the kitchen table; it was somehow instinctively known, yet up until that moment had not been directly discussed. We shared a deep, abiding commitment to abstraction and transdisciplinary or post–medium specific art that is undeniably ensconced in the aura of blackness.

This expedition of Terry’s—and I believe, at a meta level, that he was an explorer of ideas, people, objects, places, archives, repertoires, and boundaries—comes full circle in his performance Sacred Order of Twilight Brothers, which I am grateful to have curated for the Performa 13 biennial. Terry performed it the evening of November 18, 2013, with the Lone Wolf Recital Corps members Vincent Chancey, Marshall Sealy, Dick Griffin, and Kiane Zawadi. Audiences were smitten by Terry and the musicians’ indelible performance, which featured colossal eighteen-foot-tall horns he invented and which he called Arkaphones. All except Zawadi had played the instrumental sculptures during their premiere in 1996 at the Whitney Museum’s Philip Morris branch; now, nearly twenty years later, Terry’s work Aviarium, 2014, is included in the Whitney Biennial. The 1996 recital was dedicated to Terry’s father, Robert Hamilton Adkins, who had passed shortly before the performance. The 2013 rendition was the first time these magical instruments had been showcased in New York since the Whitney concert. Two days later, Terry played the saxophone as part of his dear friend Clifford Owens’s resonant and evocative Dad, one in a series of performances I also curated at Third Streaming, as part of Owens’s Five Days Worth.

Terry said of the Arkaphones, “I made them on the scale at which I thought angels would play them. . . . And so the Arkaphones actually represented the horns of the first four angels of the Last Judgment.” I am certain the angels blared magnificently on that fateful day we lost Terry, coming for to carry him home.

Adrienne Edwards is associate curator at Performa and a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.