Terry Adkins brings “Recital” to the Block Museum of Art
Adkins recalls unsung heroes through sculpture and performance.
In 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole—but some historians believe his African-American colleague, Matthew Henson, got there first.
Henson’s one of the underappreciated cultural figures to whom artist-musician Terry Adkins pays homage in “Recital,” his 30-year retrospective opening Friday 11 at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art.
In an exhibition video, Adkins, 59, explains he made the vaguely igloolike sculpture Nutjuitok (Polar Star), After Matthew Henson 1866 (2011) when he realized “what was missing was an iconic sculptural embodiment of [Henson’s] expedition in the Arctic.” The piece evokes the mystery and chill of an untrodden frozen wilderness.
Adkins recalls other figures from African-American history, including singer Bessie Smith, abolitionist John Brown and country bluesman Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins, through musical instruments, parachute fabric, feathers and other carefully assembled materials. He collects these objects in his studio, where they gather dust, until a spark from his creative research casts them in a new light. “I guess you could say there’s a mystical union between me and the thing itself, followed by an act of transformation,” the University of Pennsylvania professor tells me. “You could call it a different kind of portraiture.”
“Recital” doesn’t include any conventional portraits; Adkins’s work is never that literal. “In its subtlety, it doesn’t close down meaning,” Block Museum director Lisa Corrin says.
The artist’s “recitals,” which incorporate photography, video and performance as well as sculpture, also highlight lost bits of famous figures’ biographies, such as Beethoven’s possible Moorish ancestry and Jimi Hendrix’s training as a military paratrooper.
Though Adkins exhibited work in the 2008 Renaissance Society show “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” he, too, is underrecognized. By hosting “Recital”—which Ian Berry curated for Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum—Corrin hopes to signal the Block’s new commitment to showcasing contemporary artists, especially those not typically represented by major institutions. “[Adkins] is an artist whose work hasn’t been brought together,” she says. “Until now, we haven’t been able to [see] it together and sense what a major figure he is.”
Chicago artist Dawoud Bey met Adkins in 1982, when the latter was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the center of a growing community of African-American artists. “It’s difficult to realize now,” Bey says, “but there was a moment when black artists were making work that didn’t merely traffic in easy racial rhetoric or chase itself in a circle trying to come to terms with notions of ‘post-blackness.’ Terry was one of those artists bringing real complexity to his practice.”
The whole of “Recital” is meant to be read as a composition. Adkins and his Lone Wolf Recital Corps—a performance group he founded in Zurich in 1986—activate his artworks through improvisational singing, recorded sound and spoken word. On March 1, he and a small entourage from the East Coast, including artist Clifford Owens, will join Chicago artists and Northwestern students in the Regenstein Hall Master Class Room to survey his performance works.
“I think Terry wants to push exhibitions and museum spaces to be open platforms where meanings can shift [and] narratives can change,” Berry says. Adkins’s repurposed objects and interactive performances are abstract signposts, guiding viewers into new territory.
Berry, Bey and other panelists launch “Recital” with a discussion Saturday 12.