As a student of art history, one of my favorite parts of exams was the slide comparison, looking at two works of art in relation to each other. Yes, perhaps it is a bit nerdy of me to admit, but what I found fascinating about this exercise was that it opened up a range of possible connections between the works that I might not normally explore. So I thought it might be interesting, dare I say, exciting, to apply this format to a discussion of two recent acquisitions by the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada (LK/LC/AA) (2008–09) and Mark Manders’s Fox/Mouse/Belt (1992). On first glance these artworks look very different; after all, one is a painting and one is a sculpture. But after a bit of reading and research I realized that both works utilize concepts of language, albeit for very divergent ends!
Adam Pendleton is an American artist whose practice encompasses not only painting, but also performance, photographic collage, publishing, and more. Although Black Dada (LK/LC/AA) is the first work by Pendleton to enter MoMA’s collection, it is not his first rodeo with the Museum; Pendleton’s installation Abolition of Alienated Labor was included in last summer’s Greater New York exhibition at MoMA PS1. Black Dada (LK/LC/AA) is a nearly monochromatic painting, with three slightly lighter bands of color stretching back and forth across the middle part of the work; six letters, L, K, L, C, A, and A, are printed on the canvas in an even lighter shade. Pendleton’s work engages with language in both literal and figurative ways. The title, Black Dada, concretely describes the color of the painting and the textual motif of the work. But the combination of these words, black and dada, elicits other connotations. Dada, a nonsense word coined by a group of European artists at the outbreak of WWI, is imbued with the intentions of their radical and innovative artistic practices that challenged classical forms of art making. Black Dada also borrows from a 1964 work by the Beat poet Amiri Baraka, Black Dada Nihilismus. These words converge in a way that introduces sociopolitical issues of race and revolution that go well beyond the physical properties of the work.
Since 1986 the Dutch artist Mark Manders has been creating an idiosyncratic lexicon of works that tie into his larger, overarching, artistic endeavor, which the artist calls “self-portrait as a building.” This is not a real, physically articulated building, but rather an ever expanding conceptual space that comprises the artist’s installations, drawings, books, and sculptures. Manders employs notions of sentence structure in Fox/Mouse/Belt that differ greatly from the figurative way that Pendleton uses language to bring historical references into the present. When Manders began his ongoing “self-portrait” he decided that words did not convey the depth and texture of his thoughts, so he decided to write “not with words but with objects.” Fox/Mouse/Belt is composed of three individual objects or words: a fox (a leaping fox to be exact!), a mouse, and a belt that connects each element to create one sculptural unit. The structure of a sentence is reflected in animals’ function as subject and object, and the depiction of a verb in the leaping action of the fox. The stillness of the scene and the odd belting together of a fox and mouse create a sense of ambiguity in this “sentence” that leaves any narrative unclear—perhaps it’s something that we as viewers are meant to fill in! While the three objects/words are combined at the micro level in this individual work, one thing I find really interesting in Manders’s practice is that the work also functions on a macro level, relating to the personal mythology and iconography of the artist’s larger oeuvre.
Fortunately for MoMA, this is not the only work by the artist in the collection; just last June we acquired Room with Chairs and Factory (2003–08), which is currently on tour in Manders’s solo show Parallel Occurrences/Documented Assignments at the Aspen Art Museum.