Terry Adkins was an interdisciplinary artist whose work integrates sculpture, installation, video, photography, performance, and music. As a youth, he showed a talent for visual art, but originally planned to become a musician. His practice ultimately succeeded in channeling elements of both fields, as he famously strove to “find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be, and sculpture as ethereal as music is.” Toward this end, he often presented work in the form of “recitals”—arrangements of sculptures and instruments that were sometimes activated by his collaborative performance group, the Lone Wolf Recital Corps.
Many of Adkins’s works were inspired by forgotten figures, events, and narratives that he believed were underrecognized in mainstream culture. His 2011 exhibition Nutjuitok (Polar Star), for example, reflects on Matthew Henson, a black Arctic explorer who accompanied Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in the early 1900s. Other works unearth and reenvision obscure biographical details about more widely celebrated figures, such as Jimi Hendrix’s little-known military service, or Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moorish ancestry. Adkins’s Black Beethoven series (2004) posits the relationship between racial identity and artistic vision, and comprises a reimagined photographic portrait and a group of sound sculptures, some of which are on display at the 2015 Biennale di Venezia.
Also shown in Venice are Adkins’s sculptures from Darkwater Record (2003–2008), a body of work named for the autobiography of the American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963). The series’ titular piece comprises a stack of five vintage cassette tape decks (without speakers), each unit silently replaying Du Bois’ infamous speech, “Socialism and the American Negro” (1960); the stack of audio players is topped with a porcelain bust of the Chinese leader Chairman Mao, who celebrated Du Bois’ writings and adapted them to the ideology of China’s Cultural Revolution.
When Adkins died in February 2014, it was only months before the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, in which one of his final works was exhibited. His installation Aviarium (2014) is a sound-based installation that is completely silent. The work features wall-mounted aluminum rods with cymbals of various sizes stacked on them at intervals that represent the sound waves of three different (unidentified) birdsongs. The piece offers a poetic visual representation of the natural sonic environment that exists around us.