CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) opened Who RU2 Day: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print — an exhibition that examines how artists address truth, fiction, perception, and bias in contemporary media — two weeks early. But it almost didn’t open at all. The show is anchored by the largest ever installation of Carl Pope’s “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” (2004 – 2018). Like all of Pope’s projects developed around the same time, it was shelved in 2011 when Pope abruptly walked away from the art world, seemingly for good.
Says Pope: “I started to see in society that there was no real interest in history, no real interest in art that challenged people’s preconceived conventional ideas, so I started to question the validity of my work. I just kind of went into a hiatus.”
That hiatus lasted four years. An invitation to a Montalvo Arts Center residency in 2015 brought him back. The stated mission of Montalvo is “unleashing creativity, and advancing different cultural and cross-cultural perspectives,” a phrase that perfectly describes “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses.”
Each poster in the series contains a brief textual passage alluding to mass culture — a song lyric, a prose passage, a poem, a film still, a news clip. The posters form new layers of intertextuality expanding and challenging our relationship to and understanding of contemporary blackness.
Though visual, Pope considers the installation a writing project. “He talks about the work as an ongoing graphic essay,” says James Wehn, guest co-curator of the exhibition.
Wehn was a doctoral fellow at the CMA when David Lusenhop, a Cleveland-based art collector, approached the museum to donate 42 of Pope’s posters. Wehn went to see the works with Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings. They realized immediately the posters were important. “We took our time with the donation,” Says Peters. “It took almost a year, because we really wanted to understand the project. At first, we thought we’d take 20 posters. But we eventually decided it really only makes sense to get the whole work.”
They decided to reach out to Pope to acquire the rest of the poster series. But Pope is not exactly the easiest artist to get a hold of. He is perhaps the most famous anonymous artist in America, though his work has been exhibited in our most prominent cultural institutions. The Whitney owns some, as does MOMA. But he is not represented by a gallery. He doesn’t share his phone number with many people, and rarely checks email. He doesn’t care much about selling.
I recently met with Pope at Rabble Coffee, a small, indie cafe on East 10th Street in Indianapolis, to record a living history interview for donation to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Waiting for our drinks, Pope says, “This is my Paris. Every artist needs a place where they can be creative. That’s what this coffee house is for me.”
Pope lives about three miles away. He does not have a car. I begin our interview by asking why he isn’t represented. He shares the following advice, given to him long ago by a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Editor’s Note: Pope later contacted Hyperallergic and relayed that he had misspoken, and that the curator who said the following was actually the curator for the Raymond Saunders: Some Choices show at the Long Beach Museum of Art]:
She told me, “Galleries are nothing but stores.” She said, “They’re stores!” And I was like, wow. It made me think about what I needed to do to create a sort of longevity, beyond being considered part of a plantation narrative, or just a maker of products to be put in a store. You know what I mean?
He continues: “The international art market is a closed market, and artists have to be invited to the market. I was never invited to that market. I’ve only had like three studio visits in my entire career.”
Pope’s work has always dealt with issues of importance to Black people in America. For example, his monumental trophy series addresses the simultaneous histories of police brutality and trophy design, juxtaposing congratulatory messaging with the visual language of violent oppression. When he was making this work in the 1990s, the art market took little notice.
One of the things I had to wake up to was there was a concerted effort to create a historical continuum from Wilfredo Lam to Jean-Michel Basquiat to a group of Black Caribbean artists in New York that continues today. And so that was a velvet rope that I just could not cross. But I always felt that they only at a very surface level dealt with Black identity. There’s so much African-American work that uses Black themes, but really doesn’t explore them as if the artist is invested in them. I say that because those very artists and the people, the curators, that supported them, they came out with “Post Black,” which they defined as a social identity that no longer identifies with the Civil Rights Movement, that no longer identifies with Black Identity, or themselves as African Americans. It’s just something you do in the work, like use color or something, you know? You understand what I mean? Politically this whole conversation is explosive and would be totally upsetting to a lot of Black artists and a lot of people in the art world.
For that very reason I think this is why I’m saying it. And this is another reason I’m not in the gallery system, because of my mouth. But a friend of mine that teaches English, she says, “When you’ve done all the right things and you don’t have anything to show for it, you become radicalized.” And I really feel like I’m fucking totally radicalized because I don’t have anything to lose because I’ve never really gained anything materially from the work I’ve done. I can’t live off my work. But my work has helped me maintain a certain level of sanity and a certain level of clarity. That’s why I do my work. I’m not trying to woo anybody and I’m not trying to get invited to the right dinner parties. I’m not doing it for my career. I don’t even know what that is. I don’t use that word. I have somewhat of a practice. You know?
Having heard the word “practice” from many artists, I ask Pope what he means by it. He replies:
Something that I’m actively doing. A lot of what I do is based on experimentation, on how it’s going to be perceived. It’s like that African-American thing of call and response. Adrian Piper talks about this in her writings. Through my work, I’m creating a call based on my own responses but then I’m looking at the responses that I’m receiving to further anything else that I’m doing. But again, you know, with those Post-Black neo-liberal artists I was talking about, that whole idea about practice, the way that they define it, especially when they’re just giving lip service without any commitment to Black identity, they’re just using it just so they can make money.
Pope is not against making money. He simply chooses to focus on contributing to a critical cultural conversation. He explains:
I had some really powerful early experiences with some older people in the art world, like Corrine Jennings and Joe Overstreet. You know who they are? I’ll never forget meeting them because they talked to me about how Black artists co-opt themselves in sort of a plantation narrative to become successful in the art world. They rolled out off the top of their head like six different plantation identities that white racist collectors see in Black artists, and I was like that fucking wore me out. It made me think about how I would be seen and about how I would be perceived in the art world.
The way out of the plantation narrative, Pope says, is “to be totally unconventional. To totally buck convention.”
It’s about where your allegiances truly lie in the production of the culture. I don’t see culture as the production of beautiful paintings and works of art, you know, although culture includes that. For me the production of progressive culture is the collaborative practice with myself and other people in the world of ideals, to create and to advance human evolution. That’s what culture for me is — the actual rolling out of human evolution. And I’m really clear about my stance and my commitment to be part of the progressive roll out of culture as a person who is life affirming, who stands for the end of war and colonization, a person who is interested in equality. I’m not interested in using art as a tool for cultural imperialism. I’m not interested in producing art as luxury items for global capitalism. I’m not interested in that. Okay, I may at some point get that opportunity, and yeah I’ll take the money because I need money to live, but that does not mean that I’m going to be a neo-liberal, (laughs) you know.”
Perhaps honesty and radical imagination have kept Pope out of the sights of the mainstream gallery system. But it was precisely those aspects of his practice that attracted the CMA curators to “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses.”
When the museum found Pope in Indianapolis and informed him they wanted to acquire his entire poster series, minus the 42 posters they already had, it was one of the three most affirming moments he said he has had since coming out of hiatus. The other two were when Nicholas Mirzoeff asked him to illustrate a special hardback edition of The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, an examination of the transformation of visual culture in the wake of recent acts of police brutality, and when he was invited to co-curate Mari Evans: Carl Pope, an intertextual examination of the work of writer Mari Evans at Tube Factory Art Space in Indianapolis.
Pope ended up making a custom suite of his poster series especially for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Says Peters, “We acquired it last June, and we wanted to put it on view as soon as possible. Who RU2 Day: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print was planned entirely around this piece.”
Pope himself showed up to the museum to install it. With help from art handlers, he arranged the 108 posters on the wall in a whirlwind of intellect and intuition.
“It was fascinating to watch him do it,” says Peters. “He was very particular. He was thinking about color and also the size of the text. It’s not all based on the sayings. Some of his decisions were just formal in a sense.”
To their initial dismay, Pope demanded the museum staple the posters to the wall.
Obviously that is not the way museums want to display works they just acquired. But stapling the works is Carl’s preferred method of installation. These are letterpress posters. This is how Carl conceived the work. In a way it challenges the conception of what an art gallery is, and what art is. This work is about challenging pre-established systems.
Who RU2 Day: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print is on view at the CMA through March 24. The exhibition was curated by Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings, and James Wehn, guest co-curator. The Appearance of Black Lives Matter is available from [NAME] publications as a free, downloadable ebook.