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Interview with Adam Pendleton, the artist of black and gay culture


In his black-and-white paintings, the 35-year-old American appropriates texts and archival images which he feels never got the exposure they deserved. Firmly rooted in the conceptual field of art, his protean practice references black, gay and urban culture, as well as exploring the hidden subjectivity in the idea of systems and the possibilities of series.

Adam Pendleton’s video installation “Ishmael in the Garden: A Portrait of Ishmael Houston-Jones” (2018). Copyright Adam Pendleton

Adam Pendleton often recounts how Sol LeWitt’s buying one of his first pieces reassured him in his decision to position his work in the field of conceptual art – and it’s therefore through that prism that his production should be viewed. Frequently realized in black and white, it includes the appropriation of text or archival images (like the frequent appearance of a detail from a sculpture by LeWitt) as well as films that focus on the idea of portrait documentaries. His Black Dada series of pictorial works, which has also been published in book form, takes its title from a 1964 poem by LeRoi Jones, Black Dada Nihilismus, and collages together photocopied, reprinted or serigraphed snippets of sentences, like the repetitive layers of linguistic sediments, which form residual discourses that are similar to slogans or urban graffiti. Several of these images are hung in frames against wallpaper that was made in the same way. 


Other works are realized on mirrors, such as the series System of Display, and indeed it turns out that Pendleton is particularly interested in systems – as processes of artistic production –, which led him to put on the exhibition System Subject at the Pace Gallery stand at Frieze, next to works by Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman – two abstract artists who have become references for him. His inclusive method allows him to call upon a whole pantheon of black and gay (but not only) artistic sources who never had the recognition they deserved in a culture that is majoritarily white and straight. Pendleton recently put on a double show entitled Who We Are at the Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin, and it was during the realization of this project that Numéro met up with him in the immaculate atelier that serves as his New York base.


NUMÉRO: What’s your background? How much did the context you were raised in influence you?

ADAM PENDLETON: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia – in other words the South. My mom was a book lover and my dad a music lover. Both of these passions have collided in me. 


What made you decide to become an artist? 

I think I always wanted to be an artist. It never felt like it was something I chose to do – I just did it.


What did you study?

Everything I could: music, literature, all aspects of modern and contemporary art.



“I think I always wanted to be an artist. It never felt like it was something I chose to do – I just did it.”



What did you look at then, and what are you looking at today?

I was looking at the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and William Johnson early on. These were the books we had around. I was also reading Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. I’m still always reading, looking and listening. Today I’m thinking a lot about Fred Moten, Joan Jonas and Julius Eastman.


Do you feel associated with a community or a movement?

Like any artist, I have inherited much from the movements of the past – particularly the conceptual traditions and some of the techniques of the Language poets – but I’m not sure there is any established movement of which I would be considered a member. Black Dada is a method of conjecturing one.


You seem very comfortable in different media. Is there one you prefer?

I’m interested in hybrid forms, and don’t privilege any medium over the others in which I work.

View of the exhibition “Adam Pendleton: Who We Are” (2019) at the Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin. Copyright Adam Pendleton

How do you consider archival images and found footage in your practice? Is the question of appropriation still a valid subject for you?

Images and texts have to be continuously re-read. I’m interested in something softer than appropriation: a critical reconfiguration of attention allowing images, texts and history to be read and received anew. I present, frame and iterate over different archival materials in order to prevent things from resting in any closed historical position.


How do you install your works? Is the display in your exhibitions important as a vehicle for your message and, if so, how is it articulated in the installations?

Much of my work involves adjusting and rethinking the default conditions of the exhibition space using interventions such as the Wall Works, which cover entire surfaces of the interior of a gallery. I’m always thinking about how the works reflect one another – often literally – and punctuate space.


How do you choose the titles of your pieces?

Titles are arrived at in a variety of ways. Many, such as those in the System of Display and Black Dada series, contain fields populated with data indexed from the work. The Black Dada paintings are subtitled with combinations of letters pulled from the phrase “Black Dada” and printed on the canvas. Similarly, each System of Display subtitle contains the caption for a selected image as well as a word chosen from a corpus of texts and a letter chosen from that word, which is reflected in the work. There is an opacity there,  but also a kind of precision and straightforwardness.


Why did you choose to work exclusively in black and white?

I don’t work exclusively in black and white. I use whatever materials are necessary, including colour.



“Images and texts have to be continuously re-read. I’m interested in something softer than appropriation: a critical reconfiguration of attention allowing images, texts and history to be read and received anew.”



You curated a show titled System Subject that featured many historical works by artists from Sol LeWitt to Agnes Martin. What interests you in the repetitive process in art? Could it be a metaphor for something else?

These ways of making art – repetitive, rule-based systems used by people like LeWitt, Martin, Vito Acconci, Charles Gaines – generate questions about subjectivity. Even the most ostensibly neutral, objective system for producing art is invested with things that intersect and overlap with subjectivity: feelings, desires, obsessions. That was the basic premise of the show, whose title was drawn from one of Rosalind Krauss’s essays on LeWitt.


In the press release for your last exhibition, Who We Are, you quote a myriad of writers and musicians who contributed to culture in general and who shaped the “we.” Your paintings repeat the words “We are not.” Could you explain who this “we” is?

“We” is/are imprecise – or, rather, developed through continuous iteration. Some of the language originally came from Monsieur Antipyrine’s Manifesto, a Dada piece written by Tristan Tzara, via the Black Dada manifesto. Like Dada, the paintings are a series of propositions, not confirmations, for who “we” is/are.


Is there anything you’d like to make people conscious of through your art?

What’s more interesting is not the “what” of consciousness but the “how” – how is (historical) consciousness formed?


What’s your next project?

I’m developing a show at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum as part of their Raid the Icebox Now project, which is an homage to Andy Warhol’s 1969 exhibition of museum storage at the school. The show will integrate paintings and prints I’ve selected from the museum’s collection into an installation of my own work.


Adam Pendleton is represented by Galerie Max Hetzler – www.maxhetzler.com – and Pace Gallery – www.pacegallery.com.