Adam Pendleton Is Rethinking the Museum

The Marron Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art is an enormous, awkward area, a hole that rises from the second to the sixth ground. Since opening amid MoMA’s 2004 growth, it has hosted many tasks — however few as advanced as “Who Is Queen?” by Adam Pendleton, which arrives on Sept. 18.

Over a number of months, the artist has constructed three black scaffold buildings 60 toes excessive, off the partitions, like an endoskeleton. Each types a layered, irregular grid, with inside ladders and landings. The ensemble fires off references — De Stijl, Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation, Manhattan tenements. But the use of lumber — two-by-fours and so forth — evokes humble home-building, and the overlaps the place planks are bolted collectively generate a type of shimmer and rhythm.

Pendleton, 37, is greatest referred to as a painter of summary canvases in a particular black-and-white model that problem how we learn language. Made utilizing spray-paint, brush and silk-screen processes, they incorporate photocopied textual content, phrases unmoored from context, letters scrambled and repeated. Here, his giant work are dispersed on the scaffolds at completely different heights, some intentionally obscured by the lattice.

The museum is calling the project “a total work of art for the 21st century” — channeling the Gesamtkunstwerke of early Modernism. “This idea of the total artwork that activated all your senses was really important to the avant-garde,” said Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance, who organized the show.

Pendleton put it differently. “I’m trying to overwhelm the museum,” he said.

“Who Is Queen?” gathers material that addresses a host of contemporary topics. It is prompted by a challenge to the personal identity of the artist, who is Black and gay — the expression “you’re such a queen,” once tossed at him in a way that got under his skin. But he has broadened the concern to American society as a whole — where it is headed, and whether we must all remain shackled to narrow identity labels.

As night fell, crew members trained powerful spotlights onto the statue. They illuminated Lee’s head, the horse’s haunch, a patch of sky. Moving across the pedestal, they cast medallions of light that excerpted the jumble of graffiti and slogans into perfect circles. It was a different way of “reading” the statue — akin to how Pendleton’s canvases transform written material.

“That’s how I think when I work on a painting,” he said. “It’s both a document and a response to a document, with gestures and marks. And that’s why I love this moment and this surface.”

For some takes, an actor, Thai Richards, stood on a platform, shirtless and impassive, the statue at his back. The lights moved over his body, placing him in the glare then consigning him to penumbra — hypervisible, then unseen.

Pendleton guided the dance of the beams. “Use it like your eye,” he said, urging the spotlight operators to slow their motion, to find a rhythm. “

The summer night thickened. “We’ve been looking at this for hours,” Pendleton said. It wasn’t a complaint. “One of the main things art has to do is to get you to look, and not just for 10 seconds,” he said.

Halberstam, in a phone interview, described being filmed by Pendleton as a kind of adventure, an intimate process poles apart from conventional documentary. At one point, he said, Pendleton asked him to write 200 words on any subject, then read them. At another, Pendleton asked to film Halberstam naked, in the shower.

The scholar agreed, open to the process. “It was closer to therapy than it was to biography,” Halberstam said. “I think the push for Adam is to get at the unconscious of contemporary politics. He’s looking for these wild unscripted terrains, beneath the surface of socially mandated discourse.”

For all the intellectual bravura, Pendleton’s project carries an undercurrent of melancholy. The MoMA installation includes two paintings from a new series based on a sentence that he coined and then takes apart. It reads: “They will love us, all of us, queens.” But the sentence appears out of order and incomplete.

“The phrase never quite resolves in the space of the painting,” Pendleton said. “And it’s somehow deeply personal and unresolved for me.”

In Richmond, Pendleton said he knew he wanted to cast a Black male actor in front of the statue, then anticipated the obvious query: “Is this a stand-in for me? I’m asking myself that question..”

To make an exhibition, he said, is to put a space under pressure — just as Occupy or Black Lives Matter put pressure, in their own ways, on spaces freighted with power.

In a sense, he has built his own museum inside MoMA — an experiment in change from within, offering a radically different method of display from the chronological unfolding of the Modernist canon in the institution’s galleries.

“Can art complicate a politics of love or joy?” he asked. “I have to go into the space of the museum to answer these questions. But my intention is to overwhelm it, to push it to become something else.”

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