“I’VE GIVEN UP on that shit. I could care less.” Terry Adkins would say this to me whenever we caught up with one another. “That shit” had to do with his experience of the art world. He did not entirely mean it, of course, but he meant it enough. When things started to change for him in terms of the metrics of art-world success, such as invitations to important art-museum exhibitions, he would say to me, “It doesn’t change me a bit. I could still care less about all that shit.”
Terry was an artist who held steadfast to an idealism of art that could never be corroded by the business of the art world. He found a space for this idealism by working as a professor of fine arts in the school of design at the University of Pennsylvania for the last fourteen years of his life. There, he would both inspire and draw inspiration from the many students he taught. It was a particular mission of his to challenge the status quo and give voice to those marked by difference and disadvantage in the world. In a 2006 interview with Dana Roc, he explained:
I use figures in history whose contributions to society are either under known, under appreciated, or just not given the stature that I believe they should have in society. . . . I would do a body of abstract works that relate to the topic at hand. In the past they have been Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, John Coltrane, Ralph Ellison and W. E. B. Dubois, and others whose worldview I find similar to my own. My quest is to use abstract means, to educate the public about these figures through ways that are not image based or narrative based but to challenge them to think abstractly in relating to the stories of the lives of the people concerned.
A great deal of Terry’s time was spent in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for the lessons he could learn from its extensive collection. To ask questions of the many objects on display, as he did, is to politicize their past, present, and even future existence. He saw in the museum an allegory of all that is admirable and abhorrent about the history of humankind.
While Terry’s art always began from his particular subject position as an African American man, born and raised in the segregated South, he was well aware of the entrapment of fixed notions of identity. In a 2011 interview in Bomb, he stated: “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.” While African and African American sources were part of the many different elements in his art, they were transformed from their original function, full of flux and movement, and never regurgitative. Materials in the hands of Terry became so much more than their materiality. They became meditations on the processes by which stories are transformed into history.
Terry attuned the facticity of objects with the aqueous and aleatory qualities of music. This integration could be seen as something at odds with a culture so intent on the fixity of categories. The result was remarkably synesthetic, taking the viewer to a place that was at once ethereal and resolutely of this world. One of his last works, Aviarium, created for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, is composed of variously sized cymbals ringing on aluminum rods that jut out of the wall near the ceiling of the exhibition space. The work hovers silently above the viewer. The result is a visually arresting embodiment of musicality, its form reminiscent of trumpets and bugles harkening a clarion call for a reconciliation of all that divides us, including art.
Ken Lum is an artist based in Philadelphia.