Terry Adkins, 1953-2014
Title Magazine mourns the loss of an utterly unique teacher and artist. Terry died at the height of his powers, his work included in the Whitney Biennial just weeks away. As a teacher, he helped to nurture a new generation of exceptionally talented artists including Jamal Cyrus, Jayson Musson, Demetrius Oliver, and Jacolby Satterwhite. We invite former students and colleagues to submit their remembrances to be published here for all to share. If you would like to contribute your stories and thoughts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject Terry Adkins.
I moved into my studio number m-16 on the second floor of UPenn’s Morgan building around 4pm. I envisioned the next two years as a graduate student as time of serious (read analytical and humorless) study. I wanted to get started right away. I sat at my desk and started to draw and rationalize the stunning significance to humanity that each of my ideas had. After all, I was a serious professional, seriously. The seal on my temple o’ self-indulgence was broken around two or three in the morning by stomping footsteps and the tearing open of the grey curtain that stood in for a door to my studio. There was Terry. Terry and I stared at each other for about five seconds. Then he slammed the curtain shut as fast as he had opened it. A moment later he ripped the curtain open again, pointed at me and started belly laughing, shut the curtain and left.
Later that year I took Terry’s Sculpture Seminar. For an assignment he instructed us to come up with a project that we would want to do if we had an unlimited budget. I did the assignment half an hour before class. That day he had us post our assignments up on the walls of the white room. He walked around and discussed each assignment with the student who made it. When he got to mine, a quickly drawn image of the moon with a flat, one-sided Dr. Seusse-esque billboard advertising a smiling Don Rickles, he stared and nodded. He did not acknowledge what a waste of everyone’s time it was. Instead, he turned around and asked me if the billboard had two sides.
By my second and final year, I had come to really value Terry’s studio visits and enjoyed how much fun those half hour meetings were. However, I was not looking forward to my last visit with him as a Penn student. In order to maximize time in my studio, I took the class Jewish Humor and Terry’s class, Sonic Measures at the same time. For the last several weeks, I had been skipping Sonic Measures in order to finish up Jewish Humor. The morning of that last visit Terry strode into the middle of my studio, looked at me, and looked at my work. Then in a stern voice he said, “Mr. Slater you are making me look bad in front of the undergrads. You better have a great final project prepared, or I am going to fail you.” We then completed the visit out on the balcony of the Morgan building enjoying the beautiful spring day, laughing, and talking about art.
Terry is not someone I can sum up in one moment or in a single beautifully packaged lesson that he imparted to me. Instead, the lessons I value, and there are many, came in the form of a series of complicated, insightful, fun, and warm moments. He was just a terrific man, a wonderful teacher, and one of those rare gregarious and magnetic people who highlight the great pleasure it is to be a free thinker. Terry died too soon and this is a tragedy. He had a lot more to contribute as a teacher, and as an artist. I will miss Terry, and feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to know him, learn from him, laugh with him, and eat Tastykakes with him at 2am.
Kelsey Halliday Johnson
I remember standing in the Tang Teaching Museum in front of an old vintage trunk neatly filled with dozens of copies of the 1972 album Infinity attributed to John Coltrane. It was Terry Adkins’s 2012 exhibition Recital, and I found myself surrounded by a monumental vertical stack of bass drums, what appeared to be the guts of an oversized music box, large-scale x-rays, and other curiosities. But this specific work nagged at me, as the album had been controversial: Alice Coltrane had overdubbed and rearranged previously unreleased recordings from 1965-66, after John Coltrane had passed away.
Alice took great liberties with the album, adding (perhaps blasphemous) orchestral string backings, re-imagining the rhythm sections, and inserting her own solos within the compositions. Panned by aficionados and critics alike, the album seemed like the kind of thing a nuanced and judgmental fan like Terry would have snubbed. The devotional, if not obsessive, collection of such a biased artifact seemed at odds with Terry’s work, which typically highlighted and honored overlooked facets of historic figures. As part of his practice, Terry was known to boldly ignore, if not rewrite, popularized posthumous narratives.
But Terry’s Infinity was not about John Coltrane. Terry would have been 19 when the vinyl album first hit record stores, and I learned that this work was in fact autobiographical. A young Terry Adkins had shoplifted a copy of the vinyl album. But later, after discovering an appreciation for recording artists and living with his guilt, he resolved to purchase the album every time he came across it. The Cherokee trunk on display housed over four decades of Terry’s life, filled with record store trips, late night eBay sessions, and many anecdote-worthy finds along the way.
Terry demanded honesty in art making from his students, and it was the courage and idealistic allegiance of Infinity that taught me the full content of his character. Surely, we have all done things blindly out of infatuation, lived with childish regrets, and looked back on our early influences as naïve forms of admiration. But Terry harnessed the energy of these feelings and the root of their social context as a launching point for new cultural narratives. It saddens me deeply to consider that the Infinity collection is no longer ongoing; this personal ritual must now be seen as a completed object with its final count of records.
Central to Terry’s life and artistic practice was his avid collecting of records, stories, photographs, history, artifacts, and art. The day (or should I say weeks) that he moved from one faculty studio at Penn to another became a sort of clown-car circus spectacle. The impossible quantity of knick-knacks and artifacts pouring out from one room confounded all of us, as we watched the common areas of our graduate studio building fill to the brim with taxidermied birds, drawings, and vintage metal apparatuses. Terry’s hobbies, collections, and artistic practice could be impossible to pin down from the looks of those weeks, but his deliberate and intuitive approach to finding objects that he claimed had “a spirit in them” proved all the more rewarding that summer day I stood surrounded by his austere and humbling work at the Tang.
He was a man of strong convictions and contradictions, which was what made him so lovable, challenging, and fascinating. I remember showing a body of work exploring vintage hand painted postcards (an early still-frame kitsch Technicolor that fascinated me immensely), when Terry cried out in the middle of a graduate school critique “Why are you collecting this nostalgic crap?” I was taken aback by his flippant accusation – the postcard collection had come to me quite recently from my late grandmother, a former stewardess, genealogist, and epistolary packrat. Yet some months later, we found ourselves immersed in conversation about the first African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, and the work Terry was planning as part of a residency in the Arctic. The names and history lesson felt oddly familiar and I quickly ran up to my studio and produced a postcard of a Robert Peary Arctic expedition that Henson accompanied from early 1900s. We were both baffled and amazed at the serendipity of the find. He looked at me with a mischievous grin, filled the room with his booming laugh, and said, “Well, I guess its not all crap.”
Terry was proud, but did not lack humility or humanity. His fascination with people was far reaching, but he valued his beautiful family above all else. He rooted for historical underdogs in his personal work and for his students in his academic work – providing as much contextualizing support and as many opportunities as he could muster. And for all of that, Terry will be tremendously missed and monumentally remembered.
Listening tonight to Infinity, I am struck by its genius. As many others have conceded, John Coltrane would never have released these tracks with string accompaniment, so the arrangement is certainly speculative. Yet with fresh eyes and loving hands, these recordings were recontextualized and sonically reconsidered in a way truly fitting for a living memorial. Infinity will never exist simply as a historic recording, but lives on as a dynamic interpretation of John Coltrane’s legacy. In many ways, it seems fated that Terry Adkins found himself ethically bound to this record as an artistic touchstone.
Sometimes, a straight historical recording cannot tell us the full story. Or as we continue to learn, those histories can be flawed, biased, or incomplete. We desperately need fresh perspectives to excavate the details and draw critical attention to people and places that have been missed. This reanimation of history and overdubbing of its story is at the audacious heart of everything that Terry accomplished. To have witnessed his bravery firsthand is a privilege for which I will forever be grateful.
When Heath Ledger died in 2008, I remember Terry saying ‘No way, I saw him walk his kid to school all the time.’ I don’t understand how Terry was snatched up, a man with a family, a career, and a hell of a lot on his mind. I know he left everyone, but his move from this world to the next feels personal. Like, hell, I just talked to him last night, what do you mean?
Last time I saw him was on a google hangout chat when I was in Colombia and he was in the Morgan building in Philly. Last I saw him in person was when he hugged me on his way to the airport in Paris. Last time I tried to see him was when I just came back from Vietnam and landed at JFK, but he was in the North Pole. Our last conversation was the Friday before he passed away. He called me at 4 am, asked if I wanted to be in a show in Chicago. I told him that I would, that I was cocktail waitressing at an African club and that they loved me there. He said “I’m sure they do! HaHa!” I told him he was blowing up the art world, and he said, just working his way on the plantation. I said I feel you, painting like hell. Art fair in Brussels? You bet, they better sell my shit before I make anything new. You are one clever man, Terry, you know what you’re doing. Well, call the gallery, send your info now.
Thank you Terry
You’re welcome, honey.
Will light some candles and cross my fingers.
When he said goodbye to me in Paris, he told me to check out his show at the Palais de Tokyo, and he said “Let’s watch out for each other.” Since then, I feel like he has watched out for me, but that I haven’t done the same. I didn’t realize that when he said “let’s watch out for each other,” he meant that’s what artists do. They watch each other’s backs, they keep each other working, showing, moving, and defending the cause. Terry, I hid in the jungles of Colombia, while you cracked the glass ceiling.
Terry seized the moment! He was larger than life! He was a subversive classicist, a scholar, and impudent observer; he was whatever he wanted to be in the moment. He knew exactly what he believed, where he stood, and he never wavered. Never afraid of the limits of language, whether visual or literary, he was a master at juxtaposition and paradox. He understood and realized the eccentric possibilities of sculpture, performance and music (jazz) and with bravura created a body of work out of great strength and independence. An activist and magician merged into one.
Personally what bonded me to both the artist and the friend, Terry Adkins, was his infinite complexity – the fact that he understood that opposites are connected and embedded within each other, they create and transform, complement each other and create a greater whole. Terry possessed a nobility of purpose: to elevate matter to reveal the infinite essence of energy, with ‘Adkinsian’ style.
Couple this with his comedic warmth, an elegant and beautiful presence possessing intelligence honed both by the street and a classical education, he was impossible to resist. At once theatrical and improvisational, he merged opposites seamlessly with the grace of a poet.