U.S. Artist Adam Pendleton Brings Black Lives Matter to Tel Aviv: ‘I Don’t Shy Away From Complicated Ideas’

Pendleton, presenting in Israel for the first time, tells Haaretz about the importance of the creator’s voice in a sea of political chatter

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Conceptual artist Adam Pendleton in his Brooklyn studio, 2018.
Conceptual artist Adam Pendleton in his Brooklyn studio, 2018.Credit: Heather Sten / New York Times
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

The gloomy, depressing group exhibition “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” is currently being shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – the name comes from the title of an Italo Calvino novel that was published in 1979, toward the end of the writer’s life.

The book “was written as an act of wandering through reading, during which the author leads us through various tales that remain unfinished, and never become a coherent plot together,” the exhibition’s curator, Ruth Direktor, writes on the museum’s website. “Inspired by the novel, the exhibition ... aims to offer the viewer a journey following observation of art.”

The exhibition is comprised of 15 artworks created by 11 male artists, most of them Black Americans. They include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Henry Taylor, Rashid Johnson and Theaster Gates.

Direktor deliberately changed the gender in the exhibition’s Hebrew title by using the feminine form of the word “traveler” – giving women the role of viewer of these works, which were all made by men.

The exhibition has been filled with unexpected, topical and semi-prophetic new meanings by the coronavirus pandemic and the protest wave in the United States. The echoes of those demonstrations enter the exhibition hall, accompany the visitor and create a new journey of observation via the artworks.

At the heart of the exhibition are three extensive works by American artist Adam Pendleton, who is exhibiting in Israel for the first time. Pendleton, born in 1984, is considered one of the most interesting Black American artists working today.

Pendleton had planned to visit Israel for the exhibition, “but the flights were canceled,” he said with visible regret, speaking to Haaretz via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn.

At such a stormy time, when protests for racial justice in America are refusing to subside and even spreading around the world, Pendleton hasn’t sufficed with art. He too has taken part in the protests.

“I think that you cannot live in America today, or really at any time, and, just by virtue of being a citizen, not somehow be engaged with unresolved aspects of American history and culture,” he says.

“I think what it means to be an engaged person at any time is that you are invested, investigating the dynamics of the moment you live in, but with the desire to transcend the dynamics and realities of the moment.

Adam Pendleton's 2109 work 'Masks.' An African mask that undergoes a violent process of erasure.
Adam Pendleton's 2109 work 'Masks.' An African mask that undergoes a violent process of erasure.Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Max Hetzler

“And I think what’s interesting about art is that it is both within and outside one particular moment; in that way it’s anachronistic, it’s of time, beyond time. It kind of changes the spatial and conceptual relationship we have to time, aesthetics, history.”

As part of the protests, statues and monuments symbolizing oppression, racism and colonialism are being topplied around the world. How do you treat this as an artist?

“Well, I think that things – things change. And we have to have the hope and desire that things will change. And I think that, you know, that’s sort of what’s unproductive about public monuments in general; they can kind of freeze time. And we begin to accept things rather than refuse or question things when they kind of are always there .... I think we need to imagine different kinds of symbols that represent different kinds of sociopolitical realities.”

Do you think art can make a difference?

“I like to think about things that art can be and do whatever you’d want it to do. So I really think it’s about the intention of the artist and what she wants to make happen. What I want to make happen; you know, as an artist I’m often working on ideas in a kind of isolation. And then those ideas go out into the world and you do hope that there is a reaction to the ideas to the world, both at the moment you put it into the world, and then long after you’re gone as well.

The cover of Adam Pendleton's "Black Dada Reader," 2017.
The cover of Adam Pendleton's "Black Dada Reader," 2017.Credit: Koenig Books

“And so, that's a kind of a change. I think that people use that word without defining what it means. But I think it’s all a matter of degree in expectation, and I do think art can shift things conceptually, and poetically, aesthetically. And I think possibilities of what art is and what art can do are far from finite; they’re infinite.”

To New York at 18

Pendleton’s works are a dialogue with modernism and the avant-garde. Many of them are devoted to Black history in America and protest movements in Africa. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” appeared in his work as early as 2015, long before the current protests erupted.

He’s one of the most prominent young contemporary artists and has been compared to artists a generation older like Glenn Ligon and Christopher Wool. In 2018, a painting of his from the series “Black Dada” was sold for $225,000.

The texts he collected under the title “Black Dada Reader,” which he initially distributed to a circle of acquaintances, was later published in hardcover and crowned by The New York Times as one of the best art books of 2017. The work includes “Black Dada Nihilismus,” a poem by Amiri Baraka.

The Virginia-born conceptual artist Adam Pendleton.
The Virginia-born conceptual artist Adam Pendleton.Credit: Sangtae Kim, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Baraka (1934-2014) is one of the most important Black American poets and was a prominent human rights activist. He was born Everett LeRoi Jones but changed his name after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Pendleton says Baraka is his inspiration.

In July, Pendleton’s cover for The New York Times Magazine made waves. The work included text from a famous speech by Frederick Douglass, the legendary anti-slavery activist who was born into slavery.

After a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd in May, Pendleton published a caustic essay about the dangers a Black man faces in America. That work was published in the journal ArtNews.

What led you to come out with an opinion piece?”

“I wrote a public statement, because I think ... if you look at the history of art, if you look at someone like Marcel Duchamp or Joseph Beuys – or I mean these are just the people that come to my mind immediately – I think one of the things that artists have to do is they have to question the position of the artists in society.

American poet Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
American poet Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)Credit: AP

“And that’s sort of how artists function through social spaces and also how their work is received and understood as a cultural contribution. And I think during these times of upheaval, we’re used to hearing from journalists, politicians ... but less commonly do we hear from artists. And I think when I sat down to write that piece, I kind of wanted to explore what the artists’ voice – or an artist’s voice in my case, a singular voice – has to contribute.”

Pendleton says that of course he experienced racism growing up, just as someone like myself has experienced sexism, but he prefers not to elaborate on this point.

Pendleton grew up in a largely rural area of Virginia; he says there was always art in his house, from music to writing. His mother was a teacher who dreamed of becoming a writer, while his father was a contractor and musician.

“My dad has an ongoing love of music. And my mom had a love of writers like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, and so those were books that were around the house that I was reading at an early age,” he says.

“So I think I just, you know, from an early, early age knew that or felt that things were not simple, that there was a kind of beauty really, and things being complex, and also that there was a kind of beauty and wonderful potential in being misunderstood. And I think that’s really nice about contemporary art, or at least how I might be picked up, in thinking that it can be okay to be misunderstood.”

Adam Pendleton's "Our Ideas #2," 2018.
Adam Pendleton's "Our Ideas #2," 2018.Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

As a teenager Pendleton studied art. In late 1999, he told his mother he was gay. “My parents did this really generous thing,” he told The New York Times, referring to himself, his brother and his sister. “They let us be who we are.” At 18, he moved to New York.

“But New York was a city that was familiar to me. Because growing up, we would make trips to New York. And then in my teenage years, I would make solo trips to New York to visit galleries and museums. And so I remember distinctly seeing shows by people like Richard Serra ... and also Stanley Whitney.”

He showed his works for the first time at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in 2005, when he was 21.

An abstract chorus of voices

Just before the pandemic erupted, Pendleton, who has been married to his partner for four years, was planning to open a new exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The idea was to address identity politics while expressing his own identity as a gay man and a Black artist. The opening had to be postponed, but Pendleton actually sees this as an opportunity.

American artist Adam Pendleton at his Brooklyn studio in 2018.
American artist Adam Pendleton at his Brooklyn studio in 2018.Credit: Heather Sten / New York Times

“Of course it’s interesting to have time to work on an exhibition. So I’m sure there will be different – some things will change. I’ve been working on a number of large paintings that incorporate text, but the text often sort of toes the line between legible and illegible, and it kind of represents an abstract chorus of voices, but it also plays with the mechanics of making a painting ... this kind of tension between painting and photography,” he says.

We’re currently witnessing the blossoming of Black art in the United States and around the world. How do you feel about that?

“I think that Black people all over the world have been making art for hundreds of years. And this is nothing new. I think it’s naive and foolish to think that it’s something new that, you know, we’re culturally designated as Black or suddenly men making art.”

He notes that Black artists have been showing in major museums and galleries for many decades.

“What is being understood and rethought and reconsidered? Is this how art made by Black artists and also by women and by other people who have been historically, sexually marginalized – how they fit into the dominant narratives around art and art history? That’s really the change: not making art but rather how the history and the story of art is being understood.”

American artist Adam Pendleton at work in his Brooklyn studio, 2018.
American artist Adam Pendleton at work in his Brooklyn studio, 2018.Credit: Heather Sten / New York Times

The work “Black Dada” hangs on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition. It’s a black vertical diptych, silk-screened on fabric, a black presence in the shiny white exhibition space. At its side, the work includes the “D” from the word “Dada.”

As Direktor, the curator, puts it, “The title of the work is a concept that infuses the work of Pendleton, who since 2008 has created a series of monochromatic painting, each of which features letters from the phrase ‘Black Dada.’ Placing the work at the entrance to the exhibition suggests that Pendleton’s ‘Black Dada’ is the concept driving the entire exhibition, driving the reading of his works via the logic against the logic underlying Dada, through the range of meanings of the color black – a color of art and a skin color, symbolic and real.”

Another work in the exhibit is “Masks” (2019), made of up four face masks that gradually get darker until one loses its form and is nearly swallowed up in black. According to the exhibition catalog, this is an African mask that undergoes a violent process of erasure by abstract art, while also representing a Black American identity.

The work “Our Ideas #2” is the heart of the exhibit. Pendleton says this is his favorite work because it can be read many different ways. The work takes up an entire wall and is made up of 32 black-and-white panels of uniform size that merge into a powerful inventory of shapes, words and images. The photos are processed through silk screen on Mylar and include phrases and archival photographs from African history and art.

“As I said, I’m interested in how ideas are to be represented visually in the world,” Pendleton says. “And I like this notion that our ideas, my ideas, your ideas, their ideas are somehow one in the same – that we are both distinct and indistinct at the same time. So I really like to create a kind of shared space.”

Adam Pendleton's work "Black Dada."
Adam Pendleton's work "Black Dada."Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

He says one thing at the core of his work that excites him is the possibility that art is about having a conversation. He talks about “the complicated space that abstraction creates,” but also “this feeling that I would like to have a conversation with you.

“And I think that’s really what great works of art do. They begin a visual conversation, they begin a cultural conversation. And yes, they can also begin a political conversation.”

And since we’re talking about a political conversation, have you considered taking the occupation into account and presenting your work along with a Palestinian?

“Well, you know, it’s funny because I think Israel is like America; you know, these are very complicated countries which have complicated political realities and complicated current positions towards oppression and occupation.

“And then I think on a geopolitical level, the countries have this sort of relationship with each other .... It’s complicated, and I don’t shy away from complicated ideas.”

In Jerusalem in May, Eyad Hallaq, a Palestinian with special needs, was shot dead by police. In response came the slogan Palestinian Lives Matters. What do you think about that?

“I will simply say that this language is a rallying cry for many people all over the world to identify in all different ways, from trans to Black to white to, you know, across the cultural spectrum. And there’s a reason why.”

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