While Terence Blanchard made history last week by becoming the first black composer to open a production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, I visited another major cultural institution where a black artist created “a total work of art for the 21st century.”
Adam Pendleton is the man behind, arguably, the largest and most ambitious visual arts project in the city right now: three 60-foot-tall black scaffolding containing paintings, drawings, and film in the Museum of Modern Art’s towering atrium. The compelling work explores themes of blackness, identity and abstraction.
titled Who is Queen?, it bursts into the temple of modernism, at once a disturbance and a tribute. The black-and-white images of text-based paintings and documentary footage of civil rights protests and the recently decommissioned memorial to General Robert E. Lee flicker as you ascend the floors and travel further into art history. The soundtrack, featuring recordings by poet Amiri Baraka, Black Lives Matter protests and the music of Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rapture), bounces between paintings by Pollock and Picasso in the normally silent galleries.
The MoMA piece is the pinnacle of the past decade for Pendleton, a conceptual artist with a disciplined approach to his practice and awards. His visibility and scale will likely take the artist’s career and market to a new level, while testing his ability to master both.
“Having MoMA in your corner is powerful,” says consultant Wendy Cromwell, who has placed three paintings of Pendleton with her clients over the past two years. “It’s a game-changer for artists in their careers. It helps validate the existing market. It has the potential to increase prices in the future.”
Pendleton, a native of Richmond, Virginia, is a bit of a mystery. He is only 37 and has exhibited around the world for two decades. His supporters include Adrienne Edwards, director of curatorial affairs at the Whitney Museum, whose conversations with Pendleton formed the basis for Who is Queen?, and Laura Hoptman, who invited Pendleton to participate in major group shows during her tenure at the New Museum and, later, MoMA.
But while his works are collected by Steve Cohen, Laurene Powell Jobs, Venus Williams and Leonardo DiCaprio, Pendleton hasn’t had a solo exhibition in New York since 2014, and there isn’t a frenzied secondary market for his work. His auction record of $262,812 was set at an auction for a nonprofit two years ago. Meanwhile, works by younger artists, with much shorter and less illustrious careers, have sold for many times that amount.
Unlike colorful figurative paintings by black artists, which have fueled speculative trade in recent years, Pendleton occupies a more austere and intoxicating space. In a recent profile, Pendleton told the New York Times“I’m fine with being misunderstood. You can see it in my work – these areas of stuttering language. It is a refusal, but at the same time an invitation.”
Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance, calls Pendleton a rigorous thinker on politics, poetry and gender theory. “It’s all there,” said Comer. “It’s this incredibly rich and broad intellectual spectrum that finds outlets to be activated within the work.”
Pendleton’s closest analogue is arguably Rashid Johnson, who is classified as a conceptual, ‘post-black’ artist and also works across a variety of media. However, Johnson’s work is regularly traded on the secondary market, and earlier this year he reached an auction high of $1.95 million at Christie’s for a painting, Fearful red painting December 18th, created during the pandemic and sold to raise money for a non-profit organization.
The lack of auction heat around Pendleton “may be because he’s not interested in collaborating with luxury brands and fashion houses, or being a DJ,” said Alexander Gray, an art dealer and Pendleton’s boyfriend of 18 years. “It’s about the art. He really controls how much work comes out of the studio. He does not want to be a vehicle for speculation.”
It could also be a result of his focus on art, rather than the market. Instead of feeding the beast, Pendleton often says no to distractions. At age 16, he refused to get a driver’s license because he was too busy painting in the basement. In recent years, he said no to dealers who asked him to make more paintings, charge higher prices and do high-profile exhibitions. He even said no to New York City, when he was in his twenties he moved north for several years.
This unusual ability to say ‘no’ is the result of Pendleton’s clarity and determination, said Edwards, his friend of more than a decade. Pendleton isn’t one to hit the prom circuit or spend summers in the Hamptons.
“With that clarity, you kind of know what fits and what doesn’t,” she said. “What will help you and what won’t. Adam makes art because he has to. He turns to literature and poetry because that is what nourishes him. The ‘no’ has to do with the determination to reserve that place for themselves.”
Pendleton declined to comment on this column, but issued a statement: “Art is a slow process that requires time and attention. I am not an artist for 10 years, but for the rest of my life.”
This kind of consultation can be a headache for its dealers.
Pendleton creates “a painfully small number of paintings,” according to Marc Glimcher, president of Pace, the mega-gallery he’s been working with since 2012. maybe there are 15 to 17 paintings,” he said. “Some years it’s less than that.”
Painting is only one aspect of Pendleton’s practice, which includes performance and writing. All are rooted in his theory of Black Dada, which draws parallels between artistic response to the trauma of World War I in Europe and to racism in the US. He developed it in his twenties while living an almost monastic existence in Germantown, New York.
However, the market is mainly interested in the paintings, and it takes a lot of time to make them. His process involves numerous stages and revisions, involving spray painting, photography and screen printing.
“Maybe one in three is acceptable to him,” Glimcher said. “He knows exactly what to do, exactly how many paintings to make. And it’s never a reaction to the market, which is very healthy, but a little frustrating for the collectors.” Prices for paintings start around $200,000 and go up to $600,000 for a 20-foot mural similar to the one at MoMA, Glimcher said. (A work by the artist also sold for $333,000 last year on Loïc Gouzer’s Fair Warning app.)
Los Angeles dealer David Kordanksy received just nine paintings, an installation and a film last year for Pendleton’s first solo show with the gallery. Everything sold. “From a market perspective, he would probably be seen as an underproducer,” Kordansky said. “It’s ‘slow and steady wins the race’ with him.”
The tight control has suppressed auction sales, Cromwell said. With his MoMA show, Pendleton is on the cutting edge of critical darling and market star, and there are signs he’s changing to meet the moment. In the run up to Who is Queen?, he began to trickle out a new body of work, less austere than his previous Black Dada paintings, with spray-painted text and more evidence of the artist’s hand. These, Cromwell says, “drasically increased the audience for his work.”
Of course, the very qualities that keep Pendleton’s market on the back burner rather than a quick boil are those that enable a job as complex and lengthy as Who is Queen?. It required deliberation from solitary research into collaboration with a team of 20 people, including an architect, cameraman and composer, not to mention a small army of processors and art processors.
“I’ve never worked with someone like Adam,” said MoMA’s Comer. “He is incredibly focused. He lives his life with care and purpose and he produces his art with care and purpose.”
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