“I started to feel like everybody kept making art the same way, and that maybe there were some other things in art to think about.”
From the late 1970s until his death, in February 2014, artist and musician Terry Adkins developed a multifaceted practice that integrated sculpture, live music, spoken language, and video. Adkins was an ardent proponent of abstraction, as indebted to modernist sculpture as to the vernacular craft and musical traditions of the American South. He said, “My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be and sculpture as ethereal as music is.”
In 1986, Adkins founded the Lone Wolf Recital Corps, a group with a rotating membership of artists and musicians with whom he would stage multidisciplinary performances he called “recitals.” Incorporating live and recorded music, video, recitation, and costumed, choreographed movement, these events were for Adkins part of “an ongoing quest to reinsert the legacies of unheralded immortal figures to their rightful place within the panorama of history.” The recitals commemorated and celebrated such figures as the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown, the blues singer Bessie Smith, and the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. In their exuberant pageantry and solemn ceremony, they evoked the mystical rites of religious traditions and attained a momentary synthesis of the arts embodied by the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Last Trumpet, an ensemble of four 18-foot-long horns that are both monumental sculptures and functional musical instruments, exemplifies Adkins’s aim to bridge the realms of music and sculpture. He invented these colossal valveless horns, which he dubbed “Akrhaphones,” by attaching the severed bells of used trombones and sousaphones, bearing the eroded engraved logos of their manufacturers, to conical sections of cast brass. Singly authored, the four-part sculpture is collectively activated: the debut musical performance of Last Trumpet, in 1996, featured a quartet drawn from the members of the Lone Wolf Recital Corps.
Adkins’s sculptural compositions were guided by a process he called “potential disclosure,” which he described as summoning the innate value within the discarded materials he assembled. “I made [the horns] on the scale at which I thought angels would play them,” Adkins explained, “and so the Akrhaphones actually represented the horns of the first four angels of the Last Judgment.” Originally titled Silver Sonic, Last Trumpet was first displayed in an exhibition dedicated to the artist’s late father, Robert Hamilton Adkins, an educator and musician whose initials, “RHA,” are embedded in the word “Akrhaphone.” Adkins thus linked his personal tragedy, the loss of his father, to the universal reckoning of the Apocalypse. The Akrhaphones’ viscerally impactful sounds—encompassing a range of styles, from classical sacred music to Negro spirituals to jazz—evoke both the infernal terror and the paradisiacal jubilation of the celestial gatherings described in the biblical book of Revelation and Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1308–20), Adkins’s stated sources of inspiration for the work.
Adkins kept the Akrhaphones until the end of his life, including them in installations where they were displayed and played by various iterations of the corps, accumulating additional meanings as they circulated.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Akili Tommasino, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture
Note: Opening quote is from “The Oral History Project: Terry Adkins by Calvin Reid,” BOMB, March 25, 2015, http://bombmagazine.org/articles/terry-adkins/.