Terry Adkins, installation view of “The Smooth, The Cut, and The Assembled,” with Native Son (Circus), 2006–15. Cymbals, armature, and additional technical components, 50.8 x 243.8 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, © The Estate of Terry Adkins, Courtesy Lévy Gorvy

Terry Adkins

New York

Lévy Gorvy Gallery

The work of Terry Adkins, who died in 2014, is nothing less than visually embodied philosophy—it conjoins the poetic and the political in objects that fuse the aural with the visible. His astonishing originality escapes the well-established tropes of sound sculpture by rejecting John Cage, electronica, musique concrete, and other manifestations of sound art in favor of an improvisatory eclec­ticism that borrows aspects of Modernism but is deeply rooted in African traditions.

Adkins’s sculptures—an evocative range of found and assembled objects made into immense, carefully wrought musical instruments—create historical connections that resonate with the murderous present. Many of his works reference historical figures and act as monuments to the African and African American past. His subjects include Akhenaten; Matthew Henson, who planted the American flag at the North Pole as a member of the Peary expedition; abolitionist John Brown; and Bessie Smith, the near-mythic blues singer. Adkins’s purpose reflects an “ongoing quest to reinsert the legacies of unheralded immortal figures to their rightful place within the panorama of history.” His found objects include tools, spare parts, coat hangers, and pieces of musical instruments, all of which stand in startling contrast to the fleeting nature of music. As he explained, “My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be and sculpture as ethereal as music is.” His musical influences included Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Bessie Smith.

Though the use of found objects has ties to bricolage and Arte Povera, Adkins’s practice has important dif­ferences that remove it from those classifications. Most significantly, his component objects remain tied to their origins, to their jobs in the sphere of labor, and always refer back to their original function in some way. The viewer senses that these objects have philosophically crossed from one situation to another while maintaining their identity. For instance, wall-hung steel and wood ice saws, prime exemplars of this crossover effect, were used on a thick sheet of ice during the performance of Firmament, which was written for The Lone Wolf Recital Corps, a multidisciplinary collective founded by Adkins in 1986. (Firmament was part of a 2005 performance at the Bronx River Art Center during his exhibition, “Black Beethoven: Recital in Nine Dominions.”)

Native Son (Circus), reconstructed for this exhibition, consists of an array of cymbals placed in a semi-spherical pile on the floor. A mechanism, concealed under the bronze heap, strikes each cymbal at irregular intervals. In Adkins’s use, the cymbals partake in the crossover effect by concretely maintaining their identity without intention of transcending it. It is this process that takes the viewer somewhere beyond sculpture’s physical presence and into the domain that Adkins referred to as “essence.”