Interview with Terry Adkins

Jessica Slaven



Photo by Jamie Diamond/University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Photo by Jamie Diamond/University of Pennsylvania School of Design

For the past eleven years I’ve had the good fortune to call Terry Adkins my mentor. I’ve watched so many people—his family, friends, students, other artists, musicians, and writers—create boundlessly expansive energy with him. Terry was a power plant, an engine of spirit and deep generosity, and the mark on everyone he touched is indelible.

Last December, I interviewed Terry at his Fort Greene home in preparation for an essay I intended to write about his work and practice. His sudden passing on February 8th left me, and everyone who knew him or knew his work, in a state of shock, sadness, and grief.

The essay was something I had imagined might see the benefit of Terry’s collaborative or at least corrective influence, and working through the interview material has been an unexpectedly lonely trek (especially writing the transcription). But hearing his words helped bring about spaces of mind and qualities of thought I associate so fondly with Terry.

In the course of preparing an interview for publication, it is customary to work with its subject to fill the lacunae and compress the inflections of the spoken word into something intelligible for the page—to shape the interiority of a conversation to allow a third party, the reader, to participate as well. That wasn’t possible here, and so I chose to leave much of it as is, with minor adjustments for the sake of clarity. I hope this nearer fidelity to Terry’s voice imparts an image of him to those who never met him, and reiterates a closeness for those who did.

JESSICA SLAVEN
Something I experience with your artwork that I think is pretty unusual today is the presence of something bigger than the material, and the presence of something bigger than the depiction—if something is being depicted. There’s a quality of thereness that’s bigger than the materiality. I relate that to my personal knowledge of your teaching, and a little bit of what I know of your process, and how it relates to ritual and repetition, and ah, your interest in the transcendent, and I wanted to, in an open-ended way, explore those themes a little bit.

TERRY ADKINS
Ok.

SLAVEN
To whatever level you’re comfortable with … I think [your artworks] are actually a little bit unusual. Especially in a very fast, and increasingly fast, culture—they’re really important. And they’re slow—they take a long time to develop, they take a long time to understand, and to do well, but they’re almost immediate when you recognize them, or when you see them—they have a different kind of reading and a different kind of working time—they just have a different kind of relationship to contemporary culture.

ADKINS
I think the best way to go about it would be for you to ask me questions and I’ll answer them. (laughing)

SLAVEN
Alright! So! Let’s talk about the Infinity drawings. Do you still do those? When did you start doing those? What kind of an experience did you have in terms of personal, meditative practice, or contemplative practice, and how does that inform or relate to an artistic practice?

ADKINS
Ok. Well, first of all they’re based on a drawing that John Coltrane did, based on a twelve-tone scale, and I was glad to come up, to discover, something he had drawn. So, the idea of practicing, by repeating this over and over and over again, in an effort to perfect it, which is impossible, but there’s something to be said about trying to get there. Retracing I guess, the same action that he did, to draw this thing, and that related to the idea of practicing an instrument, too. I started them in 2003, I think. I do one everyday when I get up, and one everyday before I go to sleep. It doesn’t always happen that way. Or if I have longer extended periods of solace, I’ll do, you know, like I just came back from Italy, where I think I did 25 of them, to make up for the times when I didn’t do them before. First of all I have to confess that the Infinity piece, which is a collection of his albums, stems from the fact that the only thing I stole, in my life, and got away with, was that Infinity John Coltrane album—from a store. And I’ve never felt good about getting away with it. So in a way, this was penance for doing that—getting away with it—buying all the albums that I could. The drawing is a way of doing penance for that too. What I like about doing them is that you can see, depending on how you draw them, and there are many ways you can draw them—you can draw them by going around to each dot, you can draw them by seeing the flowering of geometrical shapes—there are four equilateral triangles, three squares, there are two hexagons, and all of these come out of the development of the drawing, and it always ends up inscribing a smaller dodecagon in the middle, so, doing them is like an unfolding—a flowering, that comes to fruition and you feel a part of this development as it happens. It’s also a way of being anonymous with it, because there’s only one result, but getting there, there are many avenues toward getting there—it’s really adventurous even though the result ends up being the same at the end.

SLAVEN
How instructive was the title or the text in finding your pathway to absolution?

ADKINS
Well, Infinity is the first posthumous album of John Coltrane, and it is done in collaboration with his wife Alice Coltrane, and the orchestration in it is added, and it’s an extension of his vision, kind of writ large through her orchestrated way of doing things. There are original versions of the songs without the orchestration. I guess you could say they’re really not Infinity drawings but they relate to this album because of my having stolen it. (laughing)

SLAVEN
Right!

ADKINS
The text is more like, she posthumously tried to give an orchestral indication of the direction of the direction that John was going in with his music. For me it’s also a manifestation of how, even though some of his later music, to most ears, sounds like total chaos, how really, it’s really structured, ordered, and how even though it’s very visceral, it still has an overall form that’s highly ordered, and a lot of people can’t hear that, but I do. And the order has a lot to do with repeated phrases and their ascent, or descent, you know—it’s like he’s carving out forms in space. There is, with this repetition, a suggestion of limitlessness that relates to the idea of infinity. So my continuing to do them, too, related to this text, I’ll continue to do them, ad infinitum! And ah, I’ve gotten a lot better at doing them, as time has gone by, in practicing it, and what I’ve tried to do is just to eliminate all traces of my own signature in the process, as I am a believer in the anonymous tradition, you know—it falls perfectly in line with all of that. It’s a way of keeping with everything that’s going on with teaching and keeping my hand in something that’s right there, at hand, and it keeps me in there. I guess if you were to relate it to any contemporary artist, I guess the person closest to it would be Sol Lewitt, whose instructional drawings anybody can do, are quite close to the same kind of general way of working.

SLAVEN
You were talking about, the last time I saw you, returning to Mass with your mother, and remembering the Mass in Latin, and your mother being relieved that you were able to take part in the Latin Mass and that being something that brings you to being part of something bigger than yourself, something that is part of a community, something that is part of a knowledge group, part of a belief body, just something bigger than yourself—I forget where I wanted to go with this—ah—the repetition of that type of song, or speech, of prayer—does, or did that inform that type of ritual drawing? Does that ever feel similar or have a similar texture?

ADKINS
Yeah, it feels like a form of contemplation. Contemplation and its roots in temple. Contemplatio in the sense of Thomas Aquinas talking about that, and you know, it’s for meditation, really, and you could go as far as to say that, in the same way, icons are modes are transportation to other states of being through this contemplative engagement with them. I guess you could say that these are like, the drawings are like, abstract icons that allow for the same kind of concentrated focus. Because sometimes in the middle of them, in the urge to get numbers of them done, most of the time I’ll stop and see how they’re becoming to determine what to do next, to figure out the relationships of the geometric shapes to each other. And looking at geometry too, as its original meaning, which means to measure the earth, and its relationship to agriculture, and things like that, all in mind as I’m in the act of doing them. Once they’re finished, each one of them, I’ll spend some time trying to decipher, or to pull out the squares, the equilateral triangles, the hexagons, and also other shapes or irregular polygons start to emerge from just gazing at them—let me get … (gets up, returns with a group of Infinity Drawings). These are hot off the press! (laughs) I don’t know. It’s quite confusing here—but you see, another dodecagon gets inscribed here. …

SLAVEN
Yeah.

ADKINS
But, ah, here’s a square, here’s an equilateral triangle, there are two hexagons, there, it’s all there. To, to gaze upon this, to see what comes forth first into your vision, is also an interesting thing, and in that way it has the same kind of magnetic appeal that an icon would, in the Byzantine sense, so yeah: this almost, almost looks like too much. As they’re being drawn you can …

SLAVEN
Different areas struggle for primacy …

ADKINS
So there’s that going on.

SLAVEN
In “Nenuphar,” [Adkins’s October 2013–January 2014 exhibition at Salon 94 in New York City] in the Rivington space, there are, on the west wall, the diptychs, with the color? There are 24 of them or so? (ADKINS retrieves a portfolio)

Progressive Nature Studies (Portfolio), 2013, from the exhibition "Nenuphar" at Salon 94, New York

Progressive Nature Studies (Portfolio), 2013, from the exhibition “Nenuphar” at Salon 94, New York

ADKINS
Yeah—that’s a folio—that’s this folio. You didn’t see this at the opening night, because they didn’t have this information there.

SLAVEN
OK, yeah. I just saw the diptychs.

ADKINS
It’s a fake folio of what are supposed to be George Washington Carver paintings, but they’re not. They’re the backs of the stereo view cards that I used to make the video that’s in the window. But Yves Klein made a fake folio too, called Peintures, where he had these swatches of color that he named after cities, and he gave them sizes, but the paintings never existed. And it was his first public gesture. So I thought I would do the same thing for Carver, so it’s called Progressive Nature Studies, which was really his first book. I call them painting oxidations, in chronological order, from these years. I proposed, that in 1892, that he was the first one to really do a fully abstract painting, decades before Kandinsky, or before the time-honored claims for Kandinsky, or Arthur Dove. So, it’s true that he was a painter. It’s true that he won at the Chicago World’s Fair an Honorable Mention for this botanical painting which is on the same scale as these other oxidations. And this is the text that explains it. It talks about how he was a painter and did this, blah, blah, blah, he did this and a fire destroyed them. It’s true there was a fire in Tuskegee that destroyed a lot of his stuff, but these were not among them. They were fictitious!

SLAVEN
Right, Right!

ADKINS
But! If someone wants to believe it! That’s cool with me too. In the original Yves Klein volume, there was a text by Pascal that just had lines. What I decided to do was make this word puzzle: you can see BROOKLYN here, these are all of the cities that you’ll find in these diptych things—they are cities that have institutions that are named after George Washington Carver. So, they start here, with these two cities, and they go on and on and on. These are actually the backs of stereo view cards, that are in Glorioso, the video which is in the window, so it kind of ties the two spaces together, and they just go on and on like that. You know who bought one of these folios?

SLAVEN
Who?

ADKINS
Ellen Gallagher!

SLAVEN
Really? They’re really beautiful.

ADKINS
I couldn’t believe it! They were printed right at UPenn.

SLAVEN
Really beautiful. Yeah—Matt Neff—Neff was there.

ADKINS
Yeah! Neff! Neff was the workhorse on this one!

SLAVEN
Yeah—he said it was on the Epson 4900 or something? Yeah—they’re beautiful.

ADKINS
Yeah. So this was really, ah, generated by the theme of the show, by the relationship of George Washington Carver to Yves Klein. And so this is kind of like an oddball kinda thing.

SLAVEN
But this is also in conversation with something you do a lot of, and that’s talking about histories of people, who I think you consider “unheralded.”

ADKINS
Yes.

SLAVEN
And in this particular case, this history is not unheralded, but specifically unwritten because it didn’t happen.

ADKINS
Yes, in this case, but in the other part of it is that what I also try to do is bring to light under-known aspects of people that are even well known, like in Carver’s case, it’s known that he was an agricultural scientist, but it’s not as well know that he was also an artist and a maker of paints and dyes and stains, one of which that preceded Yves Klein’s Blue, by 20 years! And so his was called Oxidation, Dr. Carver’s Egyptian Blue, Oxidation #9, and it, the color of it, the only other place it appeared was in artifacts in the tomb of King Tut. So that’s why the sculpture of Akhenaten is in there—he was the father of King Tut. Akhenaten too is one of the heroes of the Rosicrucians, which Yves Klein was a member of. So I also tried to deal with Yves Klein’s other influences from the East, and from Rosicrucianism, which are kind of pushed to the background, and even denied by some people, but his whole theoretical approach to art can be found in a book called the The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception, by Max Heindel, who was one of the heads of the Rosicrucians, and published in California, Klein had this book and read it. … Thomas McEvilley is the only one who has tried to come forward and say that there is definitely an influence, but those who want to keep Klein as this, you know, innovator who just dropped out of the sky, want to make him, you know, don’t want to admit this kind of influence. I had fun with the comparisons and that’s the other thing about the, you mentioned something earlier, something bigger than yourself—each time I deal with any of these subjects, I almost have to remake myself, by immersing myself, in the subject matter, and I’m trying to get a glimpse of the subject matter, and how the subject at hand might have felt. And what their reality was like. So that way I don’t have to deal with my own psychoses. … (both laugh)

SLAVEN
Well, that’s where I’m kind of interested—in part, because the readership of Paper Monument is a lot of working artists, a lot of teaching artists, people who look at a lot of art, and I think your work does a very specific and generous thing, and I think it’s maybe in part because it tries to go into other people, to see and feel where they are. …

ADKINS
The more I can keep myself out of it, the better. The more I can maintain that kind of distance, the better. And that way, for each new subject that I take upon myself, there’s a new erasure of myself that has to occur in order for that to happen in a real way. And it relates to my teaching too, because you were talking about the fast pace of this whole thing—well the fast pace has no time for things like spirit, or mysticism, or any of these things that appear kooky, or corny, or near occultish, or that has no place in the theoretically-dominated discourse that the pursuit of, that the calling of being an artist has become. I’ve always felt that there was something really mystical about being an artist. Something that set artists apart from other people, but, you know, you can’t say that nowadays—that’s a corny thing to say. Particularly in light of all of the latest French philosophers who seem to influence the next wave of thinking every time you turn around—the latest one is [Jacques] Rancière, and before him, and someone else. … There’s no place for the discussion of anything like the spiritual, or the spiritual tradition, and that’s why I like, as you well know, and have gravitated towards the writings of the traditionalist philosophers, who talk about things larger than oneself, who believed that the Renaissance was the worst thing to ever happen, because with it meant the dawning of the idea of genius—

SLAVEN
The idea of “I”—

ADKINS
Yeah, idea of “I,” and where the history of art became the history of artists, and all their idiosyncrasies and so forth. They also don’t believe that Giotto, is, ah, a primitive step toward Michelangelo, and, one-point perspective is, which they believed is space that merely possesses objects. And, so, I find them very interesting because they talk about the anonymous tradition—not only in Europe, but all across the globe, and the simultaneity of the, the anonymous tradition—the fact that we don’t know—did the gargoyles at the Chartres Cathedral or even the stained glass windows, but that authorship wasn’t their main purpose for doing it.

SLAVEN
Right.

ADKINS
So I believe that the contemporary art world could use a bit of that, instead of these highly personalized artists’ statements that all sound the same, and rubber stamping of generic students coming out of these institutions that all work the same. So now that it’s become an industry instead of a vocation, you, you, one can distinguish oneself, in fact, by following a different path, counter to that, rather than by being one of the lemmings—just follow it. Which is what a lot of people do. So, I won’t call any names of any artists here, but, but, you Paper Monument readers know who I’m talking about. (both laughing)

SLAVEN
In your work reclaimed consumer goods make an appearance—does the readymade object or the mass consumer object hold a similar value for you in being the product of basically anonymous labor? Some of them are identifiably designed objects—they often are, but they do often come from a factory and a well of labor that can’t be readily assigned.

Harvest Montgomery, 2013

Harvest Montgomery, 2013

ADKINS
Yeah—you could say that. Ah, from the beginning, I found it more interesting to work with materials that were made by other hands for other purposes. And of course sometimes, not only could it be said that it’s an echo of this anonymous labor situation, also their previous function kind of guides how the work is made. For instance the apple pickers that appear in “Nenuphar”—they are recontextualized on actual sticks that, you know, keep people from having to climb trees to pick apples. And not only that, they are even blown through a pipe. Their becoming is similar to what they’re meant to do, right? They’re blown through a pipe, which is another stick. And blown into the apple picker itself, and then broken off, and mirrored, and in this case, I wanted them to exemplify harvesting nothing. Harvesting air. In keeping with Yves Klein’s conceptions about space and the void and so forth. They’re meant to, their material that is gathered on their interior is the immaterial. And for me, rendering the material immaterial is the primary impulse of everything I do. Even the material of the history of the story itself is, in the final analysis, when one encounters an installation-based experience that is made up of these things, that that shouldn’t matter either. That they should be able to speak on their own about something, like you indicated in the beginning, something larger than themselves. Going on the premise that the luminosity of an idea—or, the word “bright idea” doesn’t come from anywhere—the luminosity of the spark of an idea, should be the thing that looms first, before the material, and that even the luminous nature of the idea should also illumine the material itself, and you can find in history certain artists that do this very well: one of them was Constantin Brancusi, no matter what he used, whether it was wood, the nature, the material nature of the thing, still maintained the luminosity, whether it was the most material thing possible, like wood, dense wood, still there’s a luminosity imparted to it, through the clarity of the idea. So, that’s what I try to accomplish—is not making any of it located to the material, the material is just a means to an end. If it’s located to the material, the vitality of the idea itself becomes lost. And dissipates. And sometimes this happens in the studio—sometimes even overnight, you know?

SLAVEN
Right.

ADKINS
So, if they [the works of art] can maintain that, that’s how I can judge whether they are successful or not. If they can maintain that over time. Like you said in the beginning it takes time for them to unfold, and if it can perpetually unfold, and perpetually be luminous, then it’s ok. It doesn’t always happen. Some of them go back to—it’s a process—I guess you could say it’s a threefold process—first of all, there’s something in the material itself that identifies itself to me, and that might be in its potential to be something else, and then there’s a gestation period, where he’ll sit around, and finally the act of transformation makes him into something finer. Ennobles the worthless, I guess you could say. And so, working in this way, I have found, that being a musician too, what I desire is that that the materials themselves can be worked with in a way that approaches the ethereal nature of music and sound, and when working with sound, I try to go the opposite direction, so that it can take on the characteristics of matter—by visceral and physical—I try to make both things do what they naturally aren’t supposed to do. That’s the challenge of it, and that’s what makes it an interesting way of working for me.

SLAVEN
I don’t know how much time you spent there, but when you were putting together the installation in the Eastern State Penitentiary, and spending time there—which is a really foreboding space, it’s damp, and it’s cold, and there’s just so much history, it’s really oppressive—did you feel at all inhabited by that space when you were working there?

ADKINS
Nah! Nah! No. No. I was so, um …

SLAVEN
Or do you ever feel inhabited by any of your work as you’re working on it? Or are you able to put it down and walk away from it when you’re done?

ADKINS
I’m not able to put it down and walk away from it, because, the idea of becoming with it is kind of like this mystical union that occurs between you and the thing itself, and I can’t, I can’t just walk away from it, because it’s difficult—it is difficult for me to have a subject/object relationship to it.

SLAVEN
Ok.

ADKINS
You know what I mean? This separation? And therefore I never refer to them as objects. They’re either works of art or they’re not. You know? And so, I can’t, I can separate myself enough to try to be a witness to whether they’re maintaining the luminosity that is necessary for their existence, but I don’t feel like I’m inhabited by anything. … I think, what I’m most inhabited by are the stories—the subjects—that is, sometimes, a problem. You know, my family gets tired of hearing about George Washington Carver, John Brown, and all of these other people, you know? (both giggle) They don’t even want to know about it, you know? I can’t even play Beethoven Missa Solemnis in the house, you know? Because I have burdened them with the immersion—you know, they are partially baptized too. So, um, but that is the thing that I am inhabited by. This immersing myself into the stories. To answer your question about Eastern State Penitentiary, I was so determined to impose this other story on the history of the place itself and my story was the history of the forty days and nights that John Brown spent in prison and the letters that he wrote from there, and when he transformed the dire circumstances of his incarceration into this monastic experience, that told the world basically where he was coming from, through letters to others, and everything, and so, to transpose the dire circumstances of this space, which were YUCK! You know, into something, um, well, contemplatively beautiful, was the goal. And, so, this idea of transcending the surroundings was the goal. So I almost was oblivious to the surroundings as they were in order to transform them into this other thing. Which I think worked pretty well. Ah, yeah. I was pleased with it.

SLAVEN
Having to go in with a clean, high, mind to get it there.

ADKINS
Mhmm. I think that’s true of working with materials too. You have to go in with a clean, high mind to not ignore their material nature, but to work through the, to work through the tonsils of the material.

SLAVEN
Yeah, yeah.

Methane Sea, 2013

Methane Sea, 2013

ADKINS
To, um, let it speak its piece, but not to be, not, manipulate it in a way where the piece that it speaks does not remain located to its material nature, but releases it from that. I guess the most physical piece in this regard in “Nenuphar” is the Methane Sea, which is the rope piece, and um, all I tried to do was to use it in conjunction with other materials associated with working a rope which were, the wooden fids (conical wooden tools) which were used to work rope from that period, on a ship, and to let them do the talking. To let that relationship do the talking. And to, and also to try to maintain the feeling that these things, all of them, somehow, just made themselves. Once again, a way of getting myself out of the way. So, if I can, if I can make them behave, as if they are the result of their own making, then that’s also a way that … in the minute I see my own self … thinking made visible? I have to get it out of the way, because—Ugh! I can’t stand it. You know? Because, ah, the process, too, should be the result of, in my opinion, a high-mindedness enough so that the decision-making process is even erased. So that you’re left there with this thing that somehow appears, as um, it grew. Or, um, as the result of nothing but itself. I guess. So, um, therefore, it all goes back to this idea of anonymity. And invisibility of authorship. Or anything. If they can’t appear natural, then, I don’t like them to appear belabored. I like them to appear as if just, WHOOSH! That they happened.

SLAVEN
Phenomenal.

ADKINS
They weren’t made, they happened.

SLAVEN
Right.

ADKINS
And so, if they happened, it’s by virtue of their own will to exist, not by any imposition that I put on them. So, um that’s the goal. Yeah, and I think too, that in looking at them, at “Nenuphar,” because I haven’t had the luxury of seeing in pristine artificial enclosure, like a gallery, the kind of focus that allows for certain things, I haven’t had the luxury of seeing it—so I saw from looking at this show, that basically, um, everything in there, um, is the result of, maybe two gestures, maybe at the most. A gesture of stacking, a gesture of gathering, assembling in no more than two ways in one piece, and so and often times it’s the isolated, it’s the juncture of these two things that is the crux of the piece. And I haven’t, I didn’t see that until um, now. I didn’t know that until now. So now I gotta do something against that! (laughs)

SLAVEN
It takes huge, huge restraint—the scale relationships also play a big part.

ADKINS
Yeah.

SLAVEN
But the Methane piece kind of struck me, I guess, kind of having had a relationship to having had long hair—

ADKINS
Mhmm.

SLAVEN
As, it kind of reminded me of a comb, or having my hair raked out as a little girl, and as that being an object of violence, and seeing my hair being caught in the comb, and it did just seem like that’s what that just turned up.

ADKINS
Mhmm—yeah. Yeah. It was hard to get it to do that, too.

SLAVEN
I’m sure!

ADKINS
Because, ah, every time I manipulated it, I could see myself thinking in it, so it was difficult to come to, to this, arrested, yet relaxed moment in that piece, where … I thought of hair too. Um, cause it’s got that … you know.

SLAVEN
What is that Japanese term? I think it’s wabi-sabi?

ADKINS
Mhmm. … When they? …

SLAVEN
Maybe that’s wrong, no—I think it’s used generally with pottery, but it’s for, it’s the term that means, ah, basically like a, very casual, it’s supposed to look kind of haphazard, it’s like there’s a small mistake, and it looks a little bit haphazard, but it actually takes a huge amount of mastery—and a huge amount of concentration, and a huge amount of skill to actually throw it off just a little bit.

ADKINS
Right.

SLAVEN
In just the right way—

ADKINS
Right—Well then, I’m all about wabi-sabi. (both laugh)

SLAVEN
I’ll look it up—it’s like, just throwing it off, just the littlest bit, so it’s imperfect in just the right way.

ADKINS
Yeah.

SLAVEN
So it’s not this like, absolutely perfect piece of pottery that overwhelms you, and you just feel cowed by its thereness, and you just feel right, you can really throw a pot, it’s like, “Oh, right there’s piece of pottery that’s as human as I am, and it’s completely natural.”

ADKINS
Naturalist—it’s the thing.

SLAVEN
Yeah, it’s kind of this piece of pottery that just happened, but is so right in the way it happened.

ADKINS
Right. I know exactly what they mean. Um, that piece just started because of that material being common to all ships and that material, you know, being part of the course of history, and exploration, war, who conquered who, but mostly because of Yves Klein’s relationship to Nice. He grew up where he saw no division between the sea line and the sky. That allowed him to come up with this concept of the infinite, and blue, and limitlessness, and so forth. And the void. So—which is a very Eastern concept, you know, you won’t find horizon lines in most Asian graphic art, because it would be entirely against the philosophy of dividing earth, humans, and the heavens, and the great triadic existence as part of the philosophy of the society—so and Yves Klein was into all that, so, I mean, he lived in Japan, he studied judo—he wrote a book about judo! He was a judo master. Although his aunt paid for him to be a judo master. He’s kind of like a metaphysical showman, you know? And he was, like ahead of his time in knowing how to engage the public with what he was doing, with spectacle, and very aware of that Hollywood kind of aspect of it. But most of it was rooted in, you know, I think another artist that’s very similar to him, is James Lee Byars, also one who studied in Japan, is influenced by these types of Eastern ideas, and aesthetics.

SLAVEN
He was so much about ritual, and so much about pageantry.

ADKINS
Mhmm, mhmm. I saw him once, in Stuttgart, and he was sitting on this pole, out in front of the museum, and this pole was way up, and he was blindfolded with this gold lamé thing, with this top hat—

SLAVEN
Jesus.

ADKINS
And he had this, he was just sitting there, and I said, um, I said, “ James Lee Byars!” He said, “Yes,” and I said, “Why is your blindfold gold?” He said, “Because it’s beautiful.” … (loud laughing, clapping, banging table) Then later he came off the pole and he was in the museum and he was talking to some people about ghosts and stuff, and um, he pointed to me, and he said, “He knows about ghosts.” When he was talking to the other people, he was quite something too. And in the same way very aware of engaging the audience in a kind of Hollywood way, but at the same time a very serious artist. And um, he, like Klein, used gold leaf a lot. He was more respected in Europe than here.

SLAVEN
He was from Detroit.

ADKINS
Uh-huh. Your hometown!

SLAVEN
Lansing, actually …

ADKINS
Oh, well. … So yeah, that’s what, that piece, had to do with George Washington Carver and Yves Klein’s different relationships to the sea, and to ships. Carver born a slave, and had a much different relationship to ships than Klein. But nevertheless, both of them with this relationship. And so that’s the theme that runs throughout—similarities, of, of both. But using, in this case, the familiarity that most artists have with Yves Klein’s legacy to illumine lesser know aspects of Carver’s legacy—most people just think he’s Mr. Peanut, you know. But he had other pursuits. This is the first time I’ve used the comparison of two people.

SLAVEN
In the show, I found, the comparison, the referencing, was fairly abstract. It’s actually very abstract.

ADKINS
Yes.

SLAVEN
You really have to kind of dig for it.

ADKINS
Yes, well, I tried to, it’s a kind of an abstract portraiture, really, if you look at the history of how I’ve done it, it’s always been abstract, even though it’s all very biographical, what I’ve tried to do is to distill from these biographies, the qualities of the person that lend themselves to abstract treatment. And rather than attaching myself once again to the more literal—

SLAVEN
I mean, you’re never depictive, but this one I found particularly abstract.

ADKINS
Yeah, yeah, well. Yeah. Um. … Both of them were, kind of dealt in abstract worlds—I mean, Carver through the lens of his microscope, and both of them also dealt with microscopic and macroscopic things. You know, Yves Klein with the idea of ascended space, rather than ascending space, and Carver—also you know you could look at some of the surfaces of Yves Klein’s things, and you know, it would be something you would discover on the surface of the microscope, like those sponges and stuff. And so Carver through the lens of his microscope was privy to this infinitesimal world of organic phenomena that are highly abstract and so who’s to say that his paintings, on the scale of microscopic slides, would not have been these that are depicted in this folio? So I had particular fun with that. (laughs) And, ah, tickled to death that Ellen Gallagher—she’s the only one that bought one!

SLAVEN
Really?

ADKINS
Yeah.

SLAVEN
Yeah, I really enjoyed those.

ADKINS
Yeah, but you were there the first night when I was pissed off because they didn’t have all of the stuff there to lay it out. But there was a redo of that entire installation. I don’t know if you went back after the opening.

SLAVEN
No, I didn’t.

ADKINS
Yeah, there was a redo of that too. …

SLAVEN
When does it close?

ADKINS
It closes on the 11th, but they’re thinking about extending it until the 18th.

SLAVEN
Ok. I’ll go down.

ADKINS
And ah, so the installation down at Freeman’s now is much better. Much more like I originally intended, because, well, there just wasn’t that much time, and um, just like everything else, it was up to the last minute. And so that space had to be redone. The other space was kind of handled already. But ah, there was some indecision about what should be included in which space, and finally it was my decision, and, but the things I wanted done it was too late to do that night.

SLAVEN
Oh, ok.

ADKINS
So they came back and tightened it up.

SLAVEN
Well, that’s good, that they did that.

ADKINS
Yeah.

SLAVEN
I’ve found, a number of times I’ve been to the Freeman’s space, they don’t put enough light in it.

ADKINS
Yeah, well they, they, you know the Freeman’s space, I wanted it to be a different experience—I wanted it to be more like a laboratory and a grotto at the same time. Because it’s already pretty rustic over there. …

SLAVEN
Yeah, with the floor.

ADKINS
Yeah, and so, that’s why it seems more like a—I wanted it to be more like a place that you could feel—was more like a place of study. You know? And so, that’s why now there are fourteen botanicals, and seven on each wall there, and there was also a replica of George Washington Carver’s Vasculum, which is that tin cylinder, and is now beaming blue light from the inside, as it should have been that night. Ah, so that’s been corrected too. But that’s a to-scale reproduction of his Vasculum, which is kind of unusual; because it’s perfectly cylindrical—most of them are different—than that. But the idea too of his gathering light, instead of material samples, which the botanicals are supposed to represent, in the scheme of things—are you cold?

SLAVEN
A little cold. But I’m always cold. It’s nothing unusual for me. (ADKINS gets up) I’m used to it.

ADKINS
You’re used to it, but you don’t have to be chilly. (returns) Put this cashmere on. Over your head. (laughs) Um, so yeah, well, I guess I didn’t speak truthfully earlier—I guess the first time I really got to see my tendencies, was at the Tang show, [“Recital,” July 14th–December 2, 2012, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College] you know? And I had yet to see in a setting as focused as Salon 94, a gathering of one Recital of one topic in one place, so, certain things became more evident at the Tang, because it was over a longer period of time.

Installation view, Terry Adkins, "Recital," Tang Museum, 2012

Installation view, Terry Adkins, “Recital,” Tang Museum, 2012

SLAVEN
Right, because you had some older stuff that was more complicated, like the rotating guy, with the doorstopper guys—

ADKINS
Yeah. Yeah.

SLAVEN
But the um, there was like, the stacking piece with the light cupola—there were maybe six or seven of the—

ADKINS
Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah—that one for Bessie Smith. Yeah, that one called Coahama (from Belted Bronze). That one was—

SLAVEN
It’s really beautiful, and it’s that one is only stacking right?

ADKINS
That’s only stacking, and the base of it, it’s made from the shields of the original things. So it’s self-contained. And ah, yeah, self-contained. And it’s, yeah, meant to be—(gets up)

SLAVEN
And it’s so simple and it does so much—

ADKINS
But, it’s ah, it’s based on (returning to table) this is a rattle, um, most, African sculpture which I have studied to a great degree, has an emphasis on these three sections of the body, the head being one, the midsection being another, and the legs being the third. … And, you know, this simplifies it in another way, and it’s a rattle, but so, that piece is based on this relationship, but this triadic relationship of head, midsection, feet. And it even has a little stand at the bottom kinda like that, so it has to do with being around this stuff, and um, (gets up) having studied it, and for a while I thought that piece was a little too easy, but after a while I got past that, you know.

SLAVEN
Yeah, I don’t think it’s easy. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

ADKINS
Yeah, that one was made at the Massachusetts College of Art at a residency I had there.

SLAVEN
Yeah.

ADKINS
Yeah, they were throwing those things out. Yeah.

SLAVEN
Yeah, and there’s the North Pole one, with the windows from Duhring [the Duhring Wing of the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, where Adkins kept one of his many studio/storage facilities].

ADKINS
That’s right! That’s right! I want that one to be on the cover of the catalogue because, ah—

SLAVEN
Because those windows didn’t work as windows and they’ve gotta work as something? (laughs)

ADKINS
Yeah, well, because I think it says something about this material in material relationship, in a nutshell, and yeah, that was fun.

SLAVEN
The light comes out of that thing in such a way … it’s such a … it diffracts the light in such an unpredictable way. …

ADKINS
Yeah. You know, you’re not old enough to remember these things, but (SLAVEN laughs) there was, during the time of black lights, and black light posters, when they first came out, also these things, called color organs. And um.

SLAVEN
I saw Scriabin’s color organ in Moscow (ADKINS laughs)—that might be a different thing.

ADKINS
Ok! Ok. These might be named after Scriabin’s color organ. But these were domestic things they sold in the same vein as black light posters and stuff, you could connect them to your stereo, and they looked like speakers, but the sound from the music would make these lights go on, and they had this same sort of refracting screen, that changed the lights into these little diamond shapes—

SLAVEN
Oh boy …

ADKINS
—that you see in that piece. So um, you know, working in Duhring, and seeing the light from outside coming in, and being refracted like that, I knew it would do that, so um, it was just a matter of getting them to weld them right. Yeah, I like that piece.

SLAVEN
Yeah, it’s a nice piece.

ADKINS
Mhmm.

SLAVEN
Yeah, and then there’s always the problem for sculptors, which is the storage problem.

ADKINS
BIG problem! Sculptors out there, let me tell you: if you become a photographer, it’s much easier. No, it’s a big problem, and ah, what can I say? I’m relieved, I’m happy to say, that Salon 94 has a pretty good storage facility. (both laughing) Because when they came to Philadelphia to pick stuff up, I said, yeah. Take this, take this, take this, take this, take this, take this, take this, and take this.