Terry Adkins (b. 1953, Washington, DC; d. 2014, Brooklyn, New York) established an interdisciplinary and frequently collaborative practice that encompassed sculpture, music, printmaking, and video. Engaging with the improvisatory spirit of free jazz, he sought to “find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be and sculpture as ethereal as music is.”
Adkins grew up in a musical household. He played guitar, saxophone, and other instruments and counted John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Jimi Hendrix among his influences. His early affinity for drawing was nourished at Fisk University in Nashville, where he studied with such luminaries as David Driskell and Martin Puryear. In 1975 Adkins completed his BS in printmaking and then pursued an MS in the field from Illinois State University. In 1979, he received an MFA in sculpture from the University of Kentucky. Adkins returned to DC, where he joined a free jazz band led by Yahya Abdul-Majid of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
It was Adkins’s residencies at the Studio Museum in Harlem and, subsequently, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center which prompted the artist’s experimentation with sculpture, installation and performative practice. In 1986, Adkins was awarded a residency in Zürich, where he founded the Lone Wolf Recital Corps, a performance collaborative featuring a rotating ensemble of artists, musicians, and friends, such as Charles Gaines, Kamau Patton, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. He termed the group’s multimedia happenings “recitals.”
Adkins’s recitals were often dedicated to recovering the narratives of historical figures important to the cultures of the African diaspora, including botanist and inventor George Washington Carver, musician Jimi Hendrix, intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, composer Ludwig van Beethoven, and blues singer Bessie Smith. Adkins reached beyond conventional interpretations of the past in his “abstract portraiture,” coming to understand his subjects through site-specific research, engaging relevant contemporary communities, and employing historically potent materials for his installations and recitals.
In 1995, Thelma Golden curated an exhibition of Adkins’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, including his Akrhaphones: giant horns which are both sculptures and invented instruments. In 1999, Adkins mounted a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and in 2000 he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in the departments of Fine Arts and Africana Studies. In 2009, he received the Jesse Howard, Jr. / Jacob H. Lazarus—Metropolitan Museum of Art Rome Prize. A retrospective of his work, Terry Adkins Recital, was organized in 2012 by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.
On February 8, 2014, Adkins passed away at the age of 59. His work has posthumously been included in significant international exhibitions including the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, and the 2015–16 traveling exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted the first exhibition and performance series to reunite the Lone Wolf Recital Corps since Adkins's death. Important solo exhibitions of his work include Terry Adkins: Infinity Is Always Less Than One at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2018); Our Sons and Daughter Ever on The Altar co-presented by Frist Museum and Fisk University, Nashville (2020); and Resounding at the Pulitzer Art Foundation, St. Louis (2020).
Work by Adkins can be found in the collections of major public institutions, including Museum of Modern Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles; Art Bridges Foundation, Bentonville, Arkansas; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Pérez Art Museum Miami.
In 2018, Lévy Gorvy held its first monographic exhibition with Adkins's estate: Terry Adkins: The Smooth, The Cut, and The Assembled, curated by the artist’s friend and collaborator Charles Gaines. The accompanying catalogue includes essays by Gaines and art historian Michael Brenson and features poems written by Robin Coste Lewis.