Who or what is an individual? Who or what makes up a collective? What are the states of order and chaos that keep individuals and collectives involved in constant processes of self-creation?
Such are the questions raised by Adam Pendleton in Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2020), one of the first major paintings in a new series of works grouped under this title. This series will feature prominently in the significant installation the artist is preparing for a forthcoming solo exhibition in the atrium of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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Both an evolution of previous bodies of work and a synthesis of new material strategies, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) brings together Pendleton’s interest in territories between abstraction and language, control and disorder, minimalism and expressivity. It posits that pointed social content and freeform experimental investigations are not necessarily antithetical modes of address, but rather indeterminate categories that frequently overlap and exceed one another.
These developments first began to appear in Pendleton’s practice in late 2016, when the predominantly minimal Black Dada paintings he had been making since 2008, in ever changing variations, gave way to more varied works involving the use of spray-painted text and linear gestures.
“The paintings are incomplete postulates. Like the voices of a multitude, they do not accede to an identity. In their combinatorial repetition, they unfold a multiplicity of negative identities: not-beings, not-nots, and being-nots.” —Adam Pendleton
The simple, accessible mechanism of the spray can enables freedom of expression in the most democratic of ways. It also provides an entry into the productive contradictions of Pendleton’s working methods, which tease out the places where marks cannot be classified either as wholly intentional or wholly accidental, nor wholly premeditated nor wholly improvised. There is the clear connection to graffiti, not to mention the medium’s appearance in examples of postwar artworks, such as Martin Barré’s paintings from the 1960s.
In a suite of works started in 2016, all produced under the title Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy), Pendleton began bringing together spray paint and silkscreen techniques to orchestrate shifting compositions of language, line, and texture. Taken from Malcolm X’s 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, the phrase that lends these works their parenthetical title carries specific historical weight, while the visual content of the paintings themselves flickers in and out of specificity, generating open-ended zones of signification where words, marks, and colors engage in formal conversation among equals. As Adrienne Edwards notes in an essay on his work that appeared in the January 2015 issue of Art in America, “Pendleton’s excavations of his ‘archive’ are acts of abstraction; they remove from their source concerns, ideologies and sensibilities that can be traced through a genealogy of thinkers invested in the question of blackness.”
Such contrasts find one precedent in the radically inventive––and structurally open––minimalist musical works of Julius Eastman (1940-1990), who gave his cross-genre compositions titles like Gay Guerilla and Crazy Nigger.
Eastman's Crazy Nigger informed another recent series, entitled Untitled (Who We Are) (2018—), which incorporates screen-printed fragments of the words "crazy" and "nigger" that hover in and around thin, spray-painted lines. It is important to note that the visual components constellated in a given group of canvases often find their ways into other facets of Pendleton's installations, covering entire walls and setting up elaborate networks of call and response.
Tracing the evolution of Untitled (WE ARE NOT), the work at the heart of this presentation, allows us to fully appreciate the multitude of voices, both literal and implied, that find their way into Pendleton’s paintings. As information spirals into and out of the delimited area of the canvas, any notion of strict linear narrative––whether procedural or historical––becomes untenable. A scholar of avant-gardes of all kinds, he understands that rupture can be constructive and destructive in equal measure.
Pendleton begins with what he calls a “spray paint original,” where he lays down the first elements of a kind of “code” that will guide the unfolding of the work to come. In this case, he sprays variations of the words “WE ARE NOT”, which are drawn from his early Black Dada manifesto, and which suggest that defining what we aren’t often helps us assert what we are.
Even in the spray paint original, words are layered atop one another, establishing multiple images and afterimages, negatives and positives, foregrounds and backgrounds. The graphic quality of written language doubles back on itself, revealing variegated fields teeming with painterly detail. Jasper Johns, an early influence, pioneered the fusion of gestural paint handling with found text and other recognizable symbols, developing an amalgam that bridged the Dionysian intensity of abstract expressionism and the cerebral, Apollonian approaches to cultural observation and philosophical critique that fueled pop art, for instance.
At the same time, and in a seemingly different, more applied register, many of these effects are simply inherent to spray paint as a medium: witness the planes of information that make up an expertly tagged graffiti wall in an urban context. (Gordon Matta-Clark turned photographs of such walls into standalone artworks in the 1973 series Photoglyphs.)
But as in much of Pendleton’s work, direct gestural intervention represents only one step in an expansive, non-teleological process. The spray paint original became the source for silkscreens that were then used to apply ink, at large scale, to canvas, where the text, along with screened images of roughly inscribed abstract bands, creates surprising visual depth. The thin, relatively controlled lines that are defining players in the scenography of the earlier Who We Are paintings become blurred and frenetic. What starts out as a straightforward phrase becomes destabilized; the syntactically linear becomes circular; affirmation becomes negation and vice versa.
Untitled (WE ARE NOT) occupies a place where private, self-directed introspection meets public declamation. Pendleton transforms a singular group of words into a collective of signifiers, many of which are impossible to pin down completely. The hot, graphic, emotional valence of the painting’s overall energy is undercut by the cool, minimalist, conceptually oriented path by which the artist arrives at the finished composition. Pendleton’s work proceeds from one chapter to the next not only by addition or elaboration, but also by negation and obliteration. As his project continues to take shape, it resists the viewer’s impulse to close a circuit of meaning within any single artwork. Instead, each painting, each installation, each video opens possibilities of meaning that derive their impact when perceived as parts of a raucous, yet elegantly constructed whole. He captures the productive cacophony of contemporary diversity in terms of race, ideology, philosophy, and aesthetics in the ongoing, immersive archive that is his total, always unfinished, always arresting work.
In November 2020, Adam Pendleton (b. 1984, Richmond, Virginia) will present his first solo show at David Kordansky Gallery. Who Is Queen, a major new project in the atrium of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is forthcoming. Other solo exhibitions include shows at Le Consortium, Dijon (2020); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (2020); MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2018); Baltimore Museum of Art (2017); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2017); Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (2016); and Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (2016). Recent group exhibitions include Manifesto: Art x Agency, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2019); Second Sight: The Paradox of Vision in Contemporary Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (2018); Public Movement: On Art, Politics and Dance, Moderna Museet Malmö, Sweden (2017); I am you, you are too, Walker Center for Art, Minneapolis (2017); How To Live Together, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2017); The Revolution Will Not Be Grey, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2016); Personne et les autres, Belgian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2015); and Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2015). Pendleton lives and works in New York.
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