Spray paint, bold black, and capital letters are everywhere in Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? On view through January at the Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition occupies the institution’s dramatic hundred-foot-tall atrium. Three towering wooden scaffolds hold paintings, a projection screen, lighting fixtures, and speakers playing an audio collage of music, poetry, and protest chants. In text-based paintings on mylar, fabric, canvas, and paper, Pendleton’s line strokes are decisive, though the angles of the strokes may vary, and letters skew or shift in size. The thirty-seven-year-old artist who was born in Richmond, Virginia, often scratches, covers, splatters over or wipes out the features of his letterforms, evoking the feeling that language is coming apart or under attack. In a conversation with architect David Adjaye, published by Pace earlier this year, Pendleton compared his paintings to graffiti, frescoes, and a wall where “the marks are disappearing as you look at it.”
Pendleton’s extensive use of handwriting and typography suggests productive and subversive interrelationships between typography, language, and protest. His works call attention to the abstract potential of language by examining how it can suggest and refuse meaning. The intensity of the graffiti-influenced writing is perhaps even a challenge to any supposedly clear, cool, neutral typography. Where Pendleton repeats letterforms and words or writes them on top of each other, he communicates various disaggregated versions of truncated, pensive phrases like “not the way,” “but now I am,” and “we are not.” His treatment of text expresses doubt and musicality while also reflecting the development of individual and collective identity. The exhibition as a whole is partially motivated by a homophobic insult Pendleton endured. As a result, it rejects simple statements, instead affirming that none of us is ever one thing. Pendleton is part of the radical legacy of Dada and the Black Arts Movement. Who Is Queen? evokes the aesthetics and concerns of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ movements. It also brings to mind the danger of writing graffiti on public and private property.
A nearly 300-page book, Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? A Reader, accompanies the MoMA exhibition. It resembles a University course reader and a designer’s process book and includes influential thinkers who linger on abstraction and the complexities of political histories and language. It asserts that Pendleton is as much a book designer as a painter and video maker. Sections of text in the reader switch from black letters on white backgrounds to white letters on black backgrounds. A casually xeroxed text might be surrounded or interrupted by copies of painted pages. Within a text, a page might repeat but be covered in geometric shapes. There are photographs of 1968’s Resurrection City, part of the Poor People’s Campaign and a precursor to the Occupy movement. The photographs show plywood shelters in Washington, DC, on the National Mall where activists demanded more federal support, writing messages of hope and determination on the plywood and on posters.
Pendleton often chooses Arial as the typeface in his reader, a typeface that also appears in the exhibition, in works like two 2021 Black Dada Drawings. In a 2009 essay titled Adam, Why Arial?, designer David Reinfurt criticizes Pendleton for using Arial, describing the font as hard to place, not firmly linked to history. Who Is Queen? suggests that for Pendleton, who was born just two years after Arial was designed in 1982, Arial is clear-cut and official, something for Pendleton to push off against. Maybe Arial is too often an unthinking default. To my eye, when Pendleton uses it, he needs something unadorned, something that you almost take for granted, that can contrast with his larger gestures and ideas.
By evoking struggle and action, Pendleton creates spaces of possibility. In Untitled (Hey Mama Hey), perhaps a reference to the 2014 song Hey Mama by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, Pendleton wrote the letters of the phrase “hey mama” at an angle so it looks like they could be a group of joyful dancers. For the painting Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2021, aspects of the title’s short words are challenging to decipher at first. Speaking with ARTSPACE last year, Pendleton elaborated on his works that use the phrase “we are not.” He explained, “As this phrase struggles to enunciate or even seems to refuse a collective subjecthood—‘WE’—this struggle is itself constitutive of subjectivities-in-process: a chorus of voices.”
Who is Queen? includes a trio of videos focusing on Queer theorist Jack Halberstam, anti-poverty activism in the 1960s, and the now-removed Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, its graffiti-covered base a collectively authored alternative to the white supremacist statue. MoMA’s atrium is dark for practical purposes—to accommodate Pendelton’s video projections—and the darkness also contributes to a certain theatricality. Lit by Hollywood-style lighting and in the company of videos, Pendleton’s black, white, and gray paintings have an ethereal, almost neon glow.
In the video portrait of Halberstam, shots of Halberstam biking alternate with closeups of text from the frieze of an imposing government building. The Trajan-like letters carved in stone form phrases including “of justice is the” and “the firmest pillar.” The typography of state-issued justice is severe and perhaps not completely trustworthy or as durable as it might seem. Halberstam and Pendleton offer poetry as an alternative. Poetry might be somewhat opaque but, for Halberstam and Pendleton, it is credible; it carves out direction, even if it makes you feel your way.
For Pendleton, abstraction is a life beyond essentialism and violence. Talking with collaborators in Who Is Queen? A Reader, Pendleton responds to a question about whether he wants us to understand his mark-making as language. He locates some of the politics and protest in his work and says of his mark-making, “I think it is in varying degrees and in varying ways legible as language, but there is a refusal to mean, to ascribe meaning. That relates to abstraction as a political imperative: the desire to exist through and within abstraction, which of course then relates to notions or theories of opacity. So yes, I’m refusing to be declarative, to say that this is this or that is that. Abstraction, for me, becomes a mode and mechanism for survival.”
Ignorance, even about survival and fundamental truths, is an unfortunate hallmark of our time. Pendleton’s reader includes a 2015 discussion between philosophers George Yancy and Judith Butler in which Butler maintains that “Black lives matter” needs to be said. Black lives matter. The statement is true, obviously true. Yet we know that other truths go without saying; people learn and internalize them without our having to write them on walls. So, Butler asks, “What is implied by this statement, a statement that should be obviously true, but apparently is not?”
We have to shout “Black lives matter” because of the ceaseless dehumanization and murder of Black people. “Black lives matter” needs to be written, reprinted, and broadcast. Pendleton spoke about Black Lives Matter in Interview Magazine with tennis great Venus Williams in June: “I’m really gratified that the ideas, issues, and concerns to which that language gave voice in our contemporary moment have proved to be so durable, and that people are still contending on a social level, on a political level, and also on an emotional level with what that language proposes about how we should be thinking about American history and society as we live it and confront it every day.”
After my first visit to Who Is Queen?, I went upstairs to see the Alexander Calder exhibition on view, those well-loved whimsical, abstract designs. I could still hear Pendleton’s audio in the Calder galleries—the poet Amiri Baraka and voices from Black Lives Matter. The experience felt like an apt statement. I couldn’t look at historical examples of modernism without simultaneously hearing the language of recent protests, political history, and poetry. No matter what you’re looking at, you can’t forget the torment, texture, and resonances of the time.