Terry Adkins

By Amelia Kahl & Spencer Topel
Jul 26, 2018

Terry Adkins’s work has a quality of mystery and magic, of stories to be discovered. Adkins possessed a particular gift for transformation and juxtaposition, using found objects to evoke individuals and histories. Although most of his works on view in Resonant Spaces were silent, they all suggested sound in different ways. More importantly, they made one consider how sound is produced: how a drum can suggest a person, a cymbal, or birdsong, or a silent film can conjure a jazz legend. Adkins’s work questions the role of music, oratory, and the histories that we believe to be true. While his installations, called “recitals,” often focus on one individual—such as John Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Sojourner Truth—this presentation brought together several pieces representing different projects from his oeuvre.



Aviarium (Grasshopper Sparrow), 2014
Steel, aluminum, silver-plated brass cymbals, and trumpet mute
181 ⁄2 × 96 × 181 ⁄2 inches
Photo by Rob Strong.

One in a series of five, this work concretizes the wavelength of the grasshopper sparrow’s song into a sculptural form made by symbols and capped by a trumpet mute.



Vasculum, from Nenuphar, 2013
281 ⁄2 × 61 ⁄2 × 61 ⁄2 inches
Photo by Rob Strong.

Created from a container used to collect samples or specimens from nature, Vasculum is reminiscent of a musical instrument, with its tubular shape and the carrying strap from which it hangs.



Tambour, from Nenuphar, 2013
Mixed media
59 × 18 × 18 inches
Photo by Rob Strong.

Ghostly and veiled, even bridal, Tambour is easy to anthropomorphize. Its form is a music stand, draped with layers of lace, and topped with a wreath-like tambourine.



Norfolk, from Nenuphar, 2012
Drum, rope, and music stand
67 × 29 × 15 inches
Photo by Rob Strong.

This work was included in the exhibition Nenuphar (2013) at Salon 94 in New York, which explored the legacies of George Washington Carver (1864–1943) and Yves Klein (1928–1962). Adkins printed a series of small letters in a grid-like pattern on each side of the drum.


Flumen Orationis

Flumen Orationis, from The Principalities, 2012
Video, 41 minutes
Photo by Rob Strong.

Adkins combines Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” sermon, given on April 30, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” from his Band of Gypsys live record, as well as other live-recorded versions. These audio tracks accompany a montage of black-and-white photographs of dirigibles and hot air balloons. The work seems to be a meditation on the lofty military goals and moral failures of the United States.



Mute, from Songs of Hearth and Valor, 2007
Video projection
Photo by Rob Strong.

Mute shows legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (1892–1937) performing in the 1929 short St. Louis Blues, her only film appearance. The video installation is silent, inviting viewers to mentally fill in the sound.



Synapse, from Black Beethoven, 2004
Photo by Rob Strong.

In this video an older, white Beethoven morphs to a younger, black Beethoven and back again. There are no images of composer Ludwig van Beethoven, whose ancestry has been called into question by a disputed claim that he could have had a black ancestor. In the transition presented in Synapse, Adkins provides no answers, but asks viewers to question our knowledge and assumptions regarding the culture of classical music and racial identity.


Terry Adkins (1953–2014) was a conceptual artist, musician, and sculptor. His work often combined object, music, performance, and history, particularly African American history. Adkins was a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. His work is exhibited widely and is included in the collections of the Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

The Contributors

  • Amelia Kahl Headshot

    Amelia Kahl is the associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art. She runs the museum’s Bernstein Center for Object Study and teaches with the museum’s 65,000-object collection across the Dartmouth curriculum. Her exhibition projects for the Hood have included "Water Ways: Tension and Flow" (2015), "The Stahl Collection" (2015, co-curated with Barbara MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art), and "Emmet Gowin Dreams of Stars" (2014).

  • Topel Headshot

    Spencer Topel creates installations and performance pieces that are immersive experiences, fusing sound, visual components, and interactive expression. Trained in music conservatories as a composer and violinist, he produced work for orchestral and chamber ensembles for over twenty years. In 2011 he collaborated with sculptor Soo Sunny Park on a yearlong installation titled Capturing Resonance, presented at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, Topel’s practice has expanded to include visual art in a distinctive body of work that engages artwork as observer and listener, where installations gain agency in the interactions between visitors and environments.