On ViewThe Museum of Modern Art
September 18, 2021 – February 21, 2022
Stand still and direct your gaze three stories up into the MoMA’s Marron Family Atrium and prepare to be arrested by the motif of black-and-white in Adam Pendleton’s Who is Queen? The work, monumental in scale, with its three soaring scaffold sculptures, taking up the height of the 60-foot atrium, is his most “autobiographical” to date and considers history not as fixed or static, but rather continuous, alive, and ever-evolving in real time. It is at once an investigation of the ways in which history has come to define us while simultaneously offering the freedom to dream a new dream through photographs, paintings, drawings, a sound installation, video, and a single textile piece.
Emerging as one of the most compelling artists of our time, Pendleton’s latest exhibition presents a body of work over a decade in the making. The lingering question is: has the work progressed over time towards something radically new, or does it actively reach back into history to maintain the basis of its foundations? Resisting resolving this question, the artist gifts audiences with a series of visually distorted paintings, complex sound installations marking important social moments in history—such as the landmark Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign civil rights protest of 1968 held on the National Mall and the global Black Lives Matter protests of 2020—blended with rich photography and culturally gripping texts that pervade the senses. A convergence of ideas at first meticulously dissected then woven back together create novel iterations of contemporary art using Pendleton’s familiar media.
The show is rooted in the foundations of Black Dada, the manifesto Pendleton theorized in 2008 that has come to guide the artist’s practice. Pendleton’s multidisciplinary approach synthesizes reference points from early 20th-century avant-garde cultural movements originating in Europe to emotion-laden rally cries from recent Black Lives Matter protests, creating what he calls “total works.” How they exist in time and space requires a reexamination of the conceptual and reframing of the visual to include multisensorial experiences that linger long after the work has been seen, heard, and felt.
Pendleton’s Black Dada solidifies the artist’s place among a cohort of exceptional intergenerational Black artists such as Chakaia Booker, Nari Ward, and David Hammons, none of whom fit into the confining label of painter, photographer, sculptor, or performance artist. Instead, these artists straddle worlds in multiplicity, reinvent their modus operandi, and challenge forms through rigorous conceptual theories. Booker, an internationally renowned sculptor, grounds her practice in the use of unlikely materials such as rubber tires to draw attention to the complex political nature of racial economics. Coming of age as an artist during the Black Arts Movement, Hammons, similar to Pendleton, has been largely influenced by Dada. Like Hammons, Pendleton’s assemblage of divergent theories reinvent texts, photographs, and musical sound pieces uncovering the multitudes of Black life and race in America, and in Pendleton’s case, queerness. Likewise, the Jamaican American artist Nari Ward’s formulation of discarded objects such as baby strollers sourced in Harlem and arranged in the outline of a slave ship in his now iconic Amazing Grace (1993), reckons with the realities of life for people dwelling in the local sites where his sculptures are created. Further, contending with the unending prejudice against Black people in America, Pendleton’s Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021), a silkscreen ink on canvas series which he has been creating since 2008, explores the idea of taking back control of one’s self by challenging the premise of how others claim and name you with malintent.
Pendleton developed the manifesto of Black Dada by combining the anti-war art movement of Dada with critical Black thought leaders of the 20th century like James Baldwin and Stokley Carmichael, who were responding to the racial unrest in American society. Drawing a connection through the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, Black Dada reckons with the oppressive nature of history told through the eyes and mouths of those who hold power over those who do not through the use of lies, misinformation, oppression, violence, and brute force. For example, one sound piece in the exhibition layers Amiri Baraka’s voice reciting his poem “Not a White Shadow but Black People Will Be Victorious (For Black Arthur Blythe)” delivered for the first time at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1980, atop composer and multi-instrumentalist Hahn Rowe’s Yellow Smile (1994). Baraka, a fiercely passionate activist and participant in the Black Arts Movement, exemplified the spirit of Black power and liberation of the time. Pendleton’s use of prominent historical figures in the fight for freedom and liberation mark critical moments in our past that have come to define our present. Like Hugo Ball, the founder of the Dada movement, Pendleton creates poetry out of words, bringing ideas of injustice and inequities experienced through capitalism and the greed it begets. Ball fundamentally rejected the burgeoning European bourgeois status quo of his time, and the satirical nature of Dadaism lies in its creation of the nonsensical to comment on the inextricable grievousness of injustice towards the human condition.
With Who is Queen? the artist breaks through our imaginings of the ways in which text, film, and sounds merge in the process of art-making. Pendleton does not merely paint, or assemble objects, nor does his practice sit firmly within the conceptual; instead he creates multi-layered experiences that impress upon our sense of sight and sound; time and place. Pendleton disrupts time with cultural signposts of the past and present, while revealing his newly imagined futures. He uncovers the ways in which literature, film, sound, photography, and painting can serve as a vehicle for immersion. Similar to the notably prolific conceptual Black artists who’ve come before him, Pendleton references pivotal moments in our collective history while injecting experiences of his own, guiding us to rethink the role of institutions, art movements, and our very place in society at large. Startling the senses, the artist challenges our notions of what has been and, provided we dream big enough, what can be.