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March 17, 2022

Interview with Adam Pendleton

Adam Pendleton (born in 1984), Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2021, silkscreen ink on canvas, 304.8 x 594.3 cm. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of Adam Pendleton

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is presenting the first solo exhibition in Canada of Adam Pendleton, a major artist of our time. Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of the MMFA and curator of the exhibition, sat down with him for the occasion.

Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief Curator

On view until July 10, 2022, Adam Pendleton: These Things We’ve Done Together introduces four new paintings from the series Untitled (WE ARE NOT), monumental works in which letters, drips, sprays and spatters blur the lines between language and abstraction, between question and affirmation, and between disciplines of artistic practice, including writing and drawing, painting and photography. The exhibition also features a series of works on Mylar® combining abstract gestures and geometric shapes, as well as seven new drawings from his seminal Black Dada series.

Completing the presentation is one of Pendleton’s acclaimed video works, Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer (2016-2017), which features the artist and Rainer in conversation, as well as scenes of Rainer performing her iconic dance Trio A (1966) and reading a text prepared by Pendleton that collages writing by activists Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, poet Ron Silliman, and Rainer’s friend Barbara Dilley.

Below, Adam Pendleton talks to us about his artistic beginnings and the creative process behind works on display in the exhibition.

I wanted to start by going back to the very beginning. You were born in Richmond, Virginia. And then at the age of 18 decided to move to New York. By that time you already knew you wanted to become an artist, or, perhaps better said, you already knew you were an artist. Can you talk to us about how you came to that realization?

I feel as though the decision was intentional on some level, but also unavoidable. I never feel as though I decided to become an artist. When I thought of my trajectory in life, the only thing that occurred to me is that I would be an artist. This occurred to me at a very young age, so by the time I was moving to New York to pursue life as an artist, there was no question. For me, it presented itself as the only option because I had already been painting seriously at that point, even though I was very young. For many years, I had been looking at the work of a wide array of painters, from William Johnson to Alma Thomas, as well as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Joan Mitchell. I was already thinking seriously about their work: how their work spoke to each other, how they spoke to one another as artists. I was not only making work, I was also thinking very rigorously about art making from a historical standpoint.


What got you interested in painting? Was this something you were exposed to in school or by your parents? Did you visit museums as a child, or was art something you came to completely on your own?

It’s a bit of all of the above. Actually, there was a book-making class that I took in high school. We were presented with the task of making an accordion book, a flipbook, and examining how you can construct a handmade book. We also had to fill the space of the book with something. I began to fill it with moments and colours and textures and splatters and language and images. It was oddly foreshadowing. And right after making those books, I made these collage works, which are still actually hanging in my parents’ home. Even then, at that young age, you could kind of see what was to come.

Already, you’ve had tremendous success in your career. Your work has been shown widely across the United States and also in Europe. This exhibition, These Things We've Done Together, is your first solo presentation in Canada. What does that mean for you as an artist?

Well, I can’t help but approach every show that I do – and I hope this doesn’t sound canned – as though it’s the most important show I’m doing. Each show is very different. So, it’s not a weightless repetition. There’s rather this kind of urgency to make a theoretical argument and create a visual space that speaks to other shows but that’s also wholly unique in its own right. For this particular exhibition, I presented myself with the challenge of making a suite of four 20-foot paintings. Prior to these four, I’d only made two other paintings of a similar scale, but formally and conceptually, I really pushed these paintings in very specific ways. There’s this turn towards abstraction, and a drive to give the language a sculptural quality in the way in which it moves across the surface of the painting, as well as how it projects into the architecture of the room.

Partial view of the exhibition Adam Pendleton: These Things We’ve Done Together. Adam Pendleton (born in 1984), Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2021. Collection of the artist. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Adam Pendleton : Ce qu'on a fait ensemble | Installation

The new works are powerful and singular, but at the same time they are part of the Untitled (WE ARE NOT) series, which began in 2018. Can you tell us more specifically about how these works build on the dynamics of previous works in the series, but are also distinct?

Well, painting is this material network of events. What is always underway is a process of translation, where a single mark or a single gesture becomes transformed when it is viewed in relationship to many marks and many gestures. The language becomes legible, but then illegible, and so it becomes an abstract figure. It leaves the realm of wanting to be read and understood, and enters into a stranger space of being felt and experienced. I’m interested in what emerges in all of these disruptions or distinctions between representation and abstraction, between photography and painting, painting and drawing. What happens in these interstitial spaces? That very question is what plays itself out in the space of the work and the space of the paintings. It’s not resolved, and it plays itself out very differently in each of the paintings. The materials are the same – line, mark, gestures, splatter, word – but the end result, the actual visual space, is quite distinct from work to work.

Why the phrase “We are not”? What does it mean to you?

That phrase came from my Black Dada text that I wrote in 2008. I made a series of statements in it: “We are not naive,” “We are successive,” “We are not exclusive.” I was recently having a conversation with Amy Sillman and she was saying how, when she’s painting, she’s always appropriating this or that. Painting is this very useful space, where you can borrow and you can steal, but it almost goes unnoticed. You’re always looking for something to use. You have these technologies at your disposal, and language is one of them. I like to think about the intention of the gesture, and that is not to say that the intentions are clear, but rather that the decision is intentional; it comes from somewhere. The Black Dada text is a definable place, conceptually, within the space of my work. I wanted to pull language from there, and this short phrase, “We are not” seems to do so much work that I had to borrow it, to appropriate it, from one site and bring it into another, which was the site of these paintings.


Can you talk more about the productive tension between language and abstraction in your work?

I am interested in how abstraction, at its best, troubles all notions of meaning. If you are trying to frustrate or queer notions of meaning, of being understood, where does that leave you? What does that elevate from a conceptual standpoint? Too often, we use language in order to be understood, but I’m interested in using language to problematize the drive to understand and, in a strange way, the drive to connect.

I once heard you say, “I’m fighting for the right to exist in and through abstraction.” Could you tell us more about that struggle?

I think that abstraction in art is a visual tool. But it’s an ethical and philosophical tool as well. When I made that statement, I was talking about the ways in which we are understood as individuals and as groups: queer, male, Black, American… The limits that exist within all of those spaces are frustrating, and abstraction offers us an opportunity to actually be fully understood because of the absence of these limits.

Partial view of the exhibition Adam Pendleton: These Things We’ve Done Together. Adam Pendleton (born in 1984), Black Dada Drawing (A), (B) and (C), 2021. Collection of the artist. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Also included in the show are seven new Black Dada drawings. Black Dada is the title for different bodies of your work, paintings, drawings and text, and it’s also the name for the method of inquiry that guides your practice. Can you talk about the genesis of this concept and how it continues to guide your work now?

Well, I’m glad you used that phrase, “method of inquiry,” in relationship to Black Dada, because that really is, at its core, what Black Dada is. It’s a method of inquiry into visual spaces, into art historical spaces. At any particular moment, I’m grappling with a different kind of challenge in relation to Black Dada. More often than not, it’s a visual inquiry. For example, the Back Dada drawings that are in the show are related to my daily practice of painting because they’re based on the material that is generated while I’m in the studio. These drawings take what’s left over and make it primary, essential. I find it interesting to put the leftovers at the centre of the conversation. I’m also just fascinated by this idea of note-taking being a kind of visual act, that painting is a notational process, and that everything that is generated during that process is worthy of a deep investigation of what it is. Black Dada is a point of departure for me. It’s a way into many different modes, means and methods of working. It’s a geometry of attention.

I’d like to talk about the role of performance in your work. You are an artist who has performed in many different contexts, but it seems to me there is also a performative element to the paintings in the way that their formal qualities respond to and play off one another. I’m curious to know if you see yourself performing in relation to your paintings.

I think it’s impossible to articulate any kind of painting, or a process of painting, in a way that is completely divorced from thinking about performance. In the act of painting, there is inherently a performative quality, which I think about more specifically in relation to “machines,” like the spray can, which is a way of getting the paint out. I’m interested in the ways in which the paint is gotten out, or how you make it move. The spray can is one way of getting it out and then the way in which you move it is another. The same applies to the process of screen printing, using giant squeegees, which are also devices that get the paint out, get it down. So, I’m very interested in the ways devices or machines relate or don’t relate to the body, and in the way the body performs and how that ends up replicating or creating a performative space and a visual space at the same time. I like this idea of exhaustion, exhausting the body, exhausting the paint.

Adam Pendleton (born in 1984), Untitled (4 works), 2021-2022, silkscreen ink on Mylar, 130.81 x 100.33 cm (each). Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of Adam Pendleton

I know you hate when people talk about your work as being black and white, but you do use black and white even though the paintings are not just that. So, talk to me about that choice. What is the role of colour in your work?

If you look at my early work, like before 2008… I think the best way I can put it is to say the palette is different. Black is a kind of compression of all colours, conceptually and formally. It’s colour under pressure. Exploring that is boundless.

I want to talk about another work included in the show, Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer. What was the genesis of that really beautiful film?

I was approached by the curator Adrienne Edwards, who saw many links between my work and Yvonne’s. She really wanted us to do a project, a show together. At the time, I thought of this exhibition as really kind of conversational. So instead, I proposed the idea to her of a documented and recorded encounter, a conversation captured on film. I began a dialogue with Yvonne. I brought a text that I wanted her to read – which you hear her read in the film – and she brought a gesture, the arm drop, which you see us enact together. So, it was an exchange of material, of language, of gesture. That’s what happened and then that exchange was edited. For me, it became a portrait of Yvonne, not in the limited sense of “this is who Yvonne Rainer is,” but as something more capacious.

Adam Pendleton (born in 1984), still from Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016-2017, single-channel black and white video, 13 min 51 s. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of Adam Pendleton

What made you decide to have her read that text in particular, which collages different writings by poets, leaders, and activists like Ron Silliman, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X?

Well, that’s what I love. That you can have Ron Silliman, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and then also Yvonne Rainer reading her own work, and how all of these radical juxtapositions can come together, rub up against each other. When you put all of these arguably distinctive things together, they almost become indistinct, and something else emerges. I’m interested in that something else.

In closing, I would like to talk about the exhibition’s title. In your mind, what are these things we've done together?

We’re always creating and perpetuating different relationships, different kinds of relational spaces and moments, and these “things” could be anything. What are these things we’ve done together? I think what’s most interesting is to ask the question, to make that statement into an inquiry, to wonder if it’s an optimistic or a pessimistic kind of statement. Is it sort of bombastic and celebratory? Or is there a kind of melancholy that one could attach to that language? You know, because we’ve done so many things together… In a way, the Rainer portrait is a document of something done together, a conceptual togetherness, an expression of what happens in those moments when, for example, two people meet, two ideas meet from different times, spaces, or generations. It’s like, what are the things we could do together? So, it’s a statement, but I think there are really interesting questions embedded within it.

Adam Pendleton: These Things We’ve Done Together
Until July 10, 2022
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion – Level S2

Credits and curatorial team
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of the MMFA. The Museum wishes to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints. It would also like to thank the MMFA’s Young Philanthropists’ Circle, proud supporters of the Museum’s Contemporary art program, and its media partner La Presse. These Things We’ve Done Together is funded in part by the Government of Quebec, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts de Montréal. The Museum also thanks Pace Gallery for its generous support of the exhibition, as well as Philippe and Deborah Peress for making the catalogue’s publication possible.

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