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The soothing piano music and soulful singing of Marian Anderson’s “Trampin’” filled the auditorium as artist Adam Pendleton began his performance at the Museum of Modern Art. Standing alone at the podium, Pendleton read: “Adrienne Kennedy, widely known for her Obie award-winning play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, as well as A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, The Owl Answers, and A Rat’s Mass.” As he paused to annunciate and exaggerate every syllable, Pendleton’s sentences took on the melodic quality of the earlier music, suggestive of poetry readings rather than a narrative introduction. He continued: “In her autobiography, The People Who Led to my Plays, Kennedy reflects on the people, places, literature and ideas that led her to write — giving equal weight to Shakespeare and Chekov and her mother and father.” Pendleton continued to read in this even-toned and well-practiced mode for 15 minutes, collaging and repeating fragments and phrases from Kennedy’s writing, all of them dealing in some way with the idea of ancestry.
Afterwards, Performa curator Adrienne Edwards began her conversation with Pendleton with a fitting question regarding “illegitimate histories.” “I like to think of it as, who’s your daddy or who’s your mama?,” Edwards explained as Pendleton and the audience chuckled. The conversation focused on three of Pendleton’s “time-based works,” as the pair called them: “Band” (2009), his first video work, which juxtaposes Deerhoof recording a new song with the 1971 documentary Teddy; “Revival” (2007), a live performance that combined Pendleton reading with a gospel choir; and the three-channel video “My Education: A Portrait of David Hillard” (2014), which followed this founding member of the Black Panthers on tour. Using these works as a starting point, the discussion explored issues of lineage — particularly who Pendleton’s conceptual art mama or daddy is, and where that places his work in relation to notions of blackness. “What if we make Adrienne Kennedy your mama?” Edwards posited, rather than Gertrude Stein and the language poets, as is often suggested. Pendleton, who nodded in agreement, picked up Edwards’s idea quickly: “As I said in the performance, Kennedy’s plays break down linear notions of the self, and the stage becomes a site for many selves, times, and places.” Kennedy reworks the established structure of the play by not limiting her characters to specific times or places; in this way, she challenges the linear notion of a personal history.
This is much like Pendleton’s own practice: “You insist on having these really structured forms but only to somehow exist beyond them,” said Edwards. Pendleton, who’s commonly known as a conceptual, performance, and language-based artist, is most famous for his Black Dada work, which began as a series of wall-based pieces that include some of, but never all of, the letters from the title in bold capitals across the canvases, layered atop partial images of Sol LeWitt’s geometric sculptures, with both the text and images rendered in black and white. “Since you’ve just Black Dada-ed us here today,” Edwards inquired, “what is Black Dada?” Pendleton laughed in a way that suggested he’s so often asked this question, to which he has no clear answer. “Black Dada is a way to talk about the future while talking about the past,” he answered. “[It] allows you to bring as many things as possible in conversation with one another,” much like Kennedy’s nonlinear writing joins disparate historical and political themes through the eyes of her characters.
With such literal references to Sol LeWitt in his paintings, it’s hard to ignore the influence of 1960–70s Conceptualism on Pendleton, though it’s not often discussed in relation to his time-based works. Edwards prodded Pendleton to further examine the term ‘conceptual’ and what it means to work in a conceptual manner: “There is a recognition between you and LeWitt in relation to the proposition — the proposition that is conceptualism. What is it about conceptual art that is so productive for you as an artist? What is the relevance of this term that it continues to reify itself through artists?” Returning again to laughter, Pendleton responded, “When a conversation starts, you have answers, but as it continues, it gets harder to respond.” He then turned to LeWitt’s words from “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) to conclude the conversation: “Irrational judgments lead to new experience.” It’s this interest in the irrational that drives Pendleton to continue devising new and thought-provoking juxtapositions in his art.
“Conversations: Among Friends featuring artist Adam Pendleton and Adrienne Edwards, Associate Curator, Performa” took place July 21, 7pm, at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).