Pope.L. Times Square Crawl a.k.a. Meditation Square Piece. 1978. Five inkjet prints, each: 10 × 15" (25.4 × 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of The Jill and Peter Kraus Media and Performance Acquisition Fund, Jill and Peter Kraus, Anne and Joel S. Ehrenkranz, The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, and Jill and Peter Kraus in honor of Michael Lynne. © 2024 Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist

“If I can construct works that allow people to enter themselves, thus, enter the mess—then it’s a collaboration and maybe, possibly, who knows, why not—I’ve nudged something.”

For five days, Pope.L sat on a toilet situated atop a tall makeshift tower, reading and eating a copy of the Wall Street Journal soaked in milk and ketchup. It was a response to an advertisement that claimed a subscription to the newspaper would increase one’s wealth. Pope.L pursued the ad’s capitalist promise by extending its assertion to its limits, asking, “…[then] shouldn’t ingesting [the paper] increase your wealth tenfold?”1

Through absurdity, curiosity, and sometimes discomfort, Pope.L transforms mundane moments and materials, like eating and reading, into profound, often existential provocations that push on the limits of the social codes that govern us. His work questions the behaviors, practices, and ideologies we have rationalized and normalized, and he invites us to ask, “Why?”

Much of Pope.L’s work across performance, installation, writing, drawing, and painting engages with holes, ruptures, and gaps as opportunities for inquiry and possibility, not absence. In his book Hole Theory (2002), he states, “I don’t picture the hole. I inhabit it.”2 Pope.L’s works pull us into the dark and disruptive holes of life, never providing a solution for these voids, but rather revealing the reality and richness of living with and in them.
As an artist, Pope.L continually seeks out spaces and forms that illustrate his commitment to finding value in what he calls “have-not-ness.”3 He grew up in a working-class family, in which some of those closest to him struggled with addiction and housing instability. Despite these precarious conditions, their lives were rich with moments of robust creativity and imagination.4 This upbringing inspired in Pope.L the notion that the “dynamic of pain, loss, joy, radicality, and possibility in the experience of being Black” is a “lack worth having.”5

Crawling is a recurring gesture in Pope.L’s work. He refers to it as “giving up verticality,” a way of making himself vulnerable in order to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in. In How Much Is that Nigger in the Window a.k.a. Tompkins Square Crawl, Pope.L, performing as his alter ego Mr. Poots, wears a businessman’s suit while holding a potted flower as he crawls around the block of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. When asked by a passerby what he is doing, Pope.L exclaims, “Working!”

As in many of Pope.L’s public interventions, this work implicates and involves passersby. Whether they choose to engage with or ignore him, the public’s presence becomes a stand-in for “normal” behavior, revealing how social normalcy often hinges on willful ignorance or disregard for certain bodies in public spaces.

In 2001 in New York City, below the Statue of Liberty—standing tall as an emblem of freedom, possibility, and hope—Pope.L crawled in a Superman costume until a police officer demanded he stop and return to the ferry. Though he had a permit to film and perform on the island, the officer claimed that the permit did not matter—Pope.L was not permitted to drag himself across Liberty Island dressed as the strongest man in a fictional world.

This scene from The Great White Way: 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street is emblematic of how Pope.L points toward the possibility of a world in which relationships among ourselves, our environment, and each other can be different. He embraces and embodies the uncomfortable contradictions we tend to shy away from and shows the possibility that exists in them. In his reframing of the world, contradiction brings clarity and vulnerability is a superpower. “It’s not that I have the arrogance to believe that I know what should be done,” he has said, “in fact, I’m afraid of the responsibility, but something should be done. And if I can construct works that allow people to enter themselves, thus, enter the mess—then it’s a collaboration and maybe, possibly, who knows, why not—I’ve nudged something.”6

Kennedy Jones, Black Arts Council 12-Month Intern, Department of Media and Performance Art, 2024

  1. Pope.L. Eating the Wall Street Journal (3rd Version). 2000. Video (color, sound; 2:54 min.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of The Jill and Peter Kraus Media and Performance Acquisition Fund, Jill and Peter Kraus, Anne and Joel S. Ehrenkranz, The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, and Jill and Peter Kraus in honor of Michael Lynne. © 2024 Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist

  2. Pope.L, Hole Theory, facsimile reproduction in Mark H.C. Bessire, ed., The Friendliest Black Artist in America (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2002), pp. 76.

  3. “William Pope.L by Martha Wilson,” interview by Martha Wilson, BOMB magazine, April 1, 1996. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/1996/04/01/william-pope-l/.

  4. “My mother, my Aunt Von, my Uncle Levert, and us kids would be sitting around and my mother who was ironing or whatever would start quoting Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes. Laughing and bubbling it up. It was neat.. These people—their hands and hearts all beaten up. My mother and my Aunt Von were nurses so their hands were always in cleaning fluids, my uncle was a carpenter, his hands were all beat to shit—and they’d all had off and on run-ins with drugs and alcohol, and here they were doing this wonderful thing with language. Again, it’s very contradictory. These people were very alive. But for more years than I can remember they sought their own deaths” BOMB magazine, April 1, 1996.

  5. The artist, quoted in Lisa Melandri, “Ritual, Archive, and Repetition: An Interview with WIlliam Pope.L,: in William Pope.L: Art after White People: Time,Trees, and Celluloid… (Santa Monica, Calif.: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2007), 21.

  6. BOMB magazine, April 1, 1996.

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
William Pope.L, also known as Pope.L, was an accomplished American visual artist recognized for his contributions to performance art and interventionist public art. He also created pieces in painting, photography, and theater. He was featured in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and was the recipient of the Creative Capital Visual Arts Award, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. Notably, Pope.L was also highlighted in the 2017 Whitney Biennial for his work.
Wikidata
Q2547113
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Introduction
Conceptual and performance artist who explored themes of race and class was best known for crawling the length of Broadway in Manhattan wearing a Superman costume in 2001. He worked in a variety of media including photography, writing, painting, and sculpture. He was also a longtime teacher at Bates College in Maine and for the last years of his life taught in the visual arts department of the University of Chicago.
Nationalities
American, African American
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Conceptual Artist, Installation Artist, Performance Artist
Names
Pope.L, William Pope.L, William Pope Lancaster
Ulan
500332876
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License

Works

28 works online

Exhibitions

Publications

  • Grace Wales Bonner: Dream in the Rhythm Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 184 pages
  • member: Pope.L, 1978–2001 Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 144 pages
  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Among Others: Blackness at MoMA Hardcover, 488 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages

Media

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