Terry Allen, the artist, musician, storyteller, painter, and sculptor, remembers sitting in the bathroom of the club his retired-ballplayer dad owned in Lubbock, Tex., as a kid, listening to music and looking at the porno drawings people did on the walls. “A very early influence,” Allen says, “hearing music, looking at pictures.”
Taking in Allen can feel similarly illicit and enveloping. Switching off, over a 50-year career, between painting, sculptures, installations, and music, Allen’s work has stayed equal parts free and exacting across those mediums. As a recording artist and painter, Allen’s cut 14 full-lengths, been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant, seen his songs covered by David Byrne and Guy Clark, and had his work end up in collections at the MoMA and the Met. He’s someone either ahead of his time, or apart from it: a multihyphenate literate giant whose catalog stretches out into just about everything.
People who dig Terry Allen don’t dabble, but believe. They convert friends to his first album Juarez, go see his plays and his shows, buy his out-of-print books, try to spot the connections. But his output remains a poorly kept secret. Taken together, it can feel like a lot. His career— careers, really—seems impossible to exist. Just like a pitcher shouldn’t be able to reliably hit, Allen, who’s only one man, can’t possibly have that much there.
Reining in everything Allen has done is a process. There are more than two parts. There’s Allen the musician, buoyed lately by reissues of his first two LPs, from the ’70s, which may have set down the template for alt-country. There’s Allen the visual artist—gouache, plexiglass, Polaroids, ink, pastels—who took off after those records, and who became one of Bob Dylan’s favorites. There’s Allen the set dresser, for plays like Hally Lou, performed by his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, and Allen the dramatist, whose occurrence, The Embrace...Advanced to Fury, spiraled out of an art show and evolved into a video piece. Add to that Allen the radio guy—plays, produced with Jo Harvey, and radio shows, in L.A. in the ’60s, available, once again, online—and Allen the public artist and sculptor, whose works—a controversial statue near Kansas City police headquarters, others dotting Denver, the University of Cincinnati, and L.A.—led his career in the ’90s, and it feels like two lives, if not three.