The Institute of Contemporary Art announces Terry Adkins: Mute, will be on view May 10-July 30.
Review for Mute:
In Mute (from Belted Bronze), 2007 – 2011, Mr. Adkins' video composition lingers on closeups of three frames: blues singer Bessie Smith’s polka-dotted dress, her mournful face singing a tune we cannot hear, and her wringing hands.
Artist Terry Adkins cropped these three shots from St. Louis Blues, a 1929 film that contains the only known footage of the esteemed songstress. Much of the film centers around Ms. Smith’s expressive 1925 rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” which she sings after her unfaithful partner leaves her for another woman. Here, however, Mr. Adkins has removed the sound, focusing instead on the emotional intensity of Ms. Smith’s body language. Mr. Adkins conceived Mute in the form of a triptych, a type of three-part artwork often religiously associated.
Mr. Adkins admired Ms. Smith for her lasting influence on blues and jazz music. He was disappointed by the lack of public monuments to the singer in Philadelphia, where he worked and where she lived for nearly two decades. In order to help recover her legacy, Mr. Adkins dedicated two recitals to Ms. Smith and employed Mute in his performances during his lifetime.
Terry Adkins: Mute is on loan courtesy Estate of Terry Adkins, Lévy Gorvy, New York.
About Terry Adkins:
Raised in a musical household, artist Terry Adkins (American, 1953–2014) made art that transgresses boundaries. Over more than three decades, he created an expansive and pioneering body of work that blends sculpture, sound, performance, video, and printmaking. Combining deep interests in history, language, and music, he devoted his work to upholding the legacies of larger-than-life figures, often from the canon of African American culture. Through his singular vision as well as his ongoing work as an educator and mentor, Adkins made a significant impact on the fields of contemporary sculpture and performance.
About Bessie Smith & St. Louis Blues
(1925 song) (1929 film)
Bessie Smith (American, 1894-1937) was born in Chattanooga in 1894 and began performing on the streets at a very early age after the death of both parents. In 1912, Ms. Smith left Chattanooga to travel and perform in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Ms. Rainey took Ms. Smith under her wing, and over the next decade, Ms. Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.
The popular American song “St. Louis Blues” was composed and published by W.C. Handy in 1914. Though accounts vary, Mr. Handy himself stated that he first encountered the song’s melody and some of the lyrics from a woman distressed over her absent husband in St. Louis, Mo. in 1892. Bessie Smith’s Columbia Records version from 1925 which features Louis Armstrong on the cornet, was recorded at the height of her music career while living in Philadelphia; it is the most popular version of this song ever recorded. By the end of the 1920s, Ms. Smith was the highest-paid black performer of her day and had earned herself the title “Empress of the Blues.”
The film St. Louis Blues was directed by Dudley Murphy and produced by W.C. Handy in 1929 and features Bessie Smith and an all-African American cast; it is the only known film of Ms. Smith, and the soundtrack is her only recording not controlled by Columbia Records. Perhaps an antecedent to contemporary music videos, the film was considered a dramatization of the song.
To learn more about Bessie Smith and her legacy in Chattanooga, visit the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
The ICA at UTC is a Southern, artist-driven ICA on the campus of UTC that presents challenging, curious, and adventurous encounters with contemporary art. The ICA is always free and open to the public. Visitors must wear a mask on campus, and practice social distancing. Summer 2021 exhibition hours are weekdays only, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.