Installation view of the exhibition Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2021–February 21, 2022. Photo: Andy Romer Digital Image © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

How to address an exhibition as it reaches its conclusion, when the artwork presented actively resists resolution or finitude? Adam Pendleton’s Who Is Queen? has been a decade in the making, but the system it proposes suggests that history is never finished; rather it is a continuous present, an accumulation of events and ideas that can be rearticulated and upended to create new perspectives and possibilities. The exhibition leaves in its wake a matrix of thoughts and thinkers who have provided many inspiring ruminations that will continue to reverberate.

While The Who Is Queen? Reader provided a kind of polyphonic score for the project at its outset, many voices, layers, and gestures have continued to accumulate over the five months that Who Is Queen? has occupied MoMA’s Marron Family Atrium. In addition to the Reader, and the forthcoming panel discussion that will form part of the Who Is Queen? Closing Celebration on February 21, the Who Is Queen? Dialogues podcast series, now available in its entirety online, weaves together a critical set of conversations that evolved iteratively over the course of the exhibition. At the heart of it all, Adam Pendleton has remained committed to the core principles of his work and his process of engineering new relationships between social, aesthetic, and poetic forms. I was able to sit down with him to hear his own personal reflections on Who Is Queen?, now that its expansive web of ideas and histories has taken concrete, physical form.

Stuart Comer: Who Is Queen? began with a conversation you had with [curator] Adrienne Edwards around a decade ago. A couple of years after that, the three of us met to discuss the possibilities for developing it as a project at MoMA. By that time, you had a title and a very coherent but nonetheless loose-knit set of ideas and questions.

Adam Pendleton: A series of questions, which are a series of prompts, right? But what hadn’t been defined in the early days of the conversation is what form Queen would take.

I think Queen, as a concept, functions most productively when it’s pushing against something. When it was formless, it could be as fluid and as unfixed as I wanted it to be, which is a state in which I, as an artist, am quite comfortable. But there was a discomfort in having it actually designated to a site, which required Queen to manifest as something physical. It took a good decade to really pull apart these ideas and give them a visual life.

Can you talk about the genesis of the project?

Who Is Queen? has been shaped and informed by having its home be The Museum of Modern Art: the histories that are embedded in the space of the Museum, the residue of histories that activate and define the spaces are touched on by this project. Queen began as and is a visual project. For me, at the very beginning, it was an investigation into that language—Who Is Queen?—and what that language meant when it was hurled at me, and how I responded in that moment.

Can you say something about how that became a prompt for you?

It’s very interesting to think about what we can demand of anyone else at any given moment. We’re all constantly trying to reify or present ourselves in particular terms. And sometimes the world confirms what we want it to see, and other times it denies what we want it to see or how we want to be seen. There are all of these small moments of asking for permission and also disavowing something else. So, all of these decisions and choices are being made, and they coalesce around something we’re all familiar with, and that is a feeling of being vulnerable. What is found in that space at our most exposed and personal moments, and how can it be translated into a form but also into an interrogation of a social space, a visual space, and a historical and a theoretical space all at once?

I think from the beginning it was clear that Queen would be a visual project with different kinds of temporal realities shaping it. But it was not clear in any sense, not even in my mind, what it would look like, what it would sound like, or how it would feel. And I think that’s where the physical site that hosts the project became essential, because, as a concept, Queen functions most productively when it’s pushing against something. It was the discomfort of actually having a site that allowed the project to manifest in something that was physical and real. It took a good decade to really pull apart these ideas and give them a physical weight and a physical life.

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

In the early 2000s, Michael Asher did a project at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. He took the floor plan for every previous exhibition that had taken place at the museum and reconstructed the framework for the walls without filling in the drywall. So he created a skeleton of the entire institutional history that a visitor could walk through. It was a brilliant piece that really engaged with the architectural dimension of the museum.

You’re not an artist I necessarily think of in terms of a conventional understanding of institutional critique, but this project really takes on the question of the museum, so I’m wondering where you see yourself in relation to an artist like Michael Asher. How do you see this project either syncing with or diverging from a more historical chapter of institutional questioning?

I would not say that I am or have actively been engaged in institutional critique as we know it, but I am always looking for alternative forms, alternative histories, alternative languages, alternative modes, alternative methods, and alternative mechanisms of being and articulation. And that is a kind of critique. To create a space for otherness in an institutional space is inevitably a kind of critique. But I would not claim that the necessity for this critique is occasioned by the institution itself. So in a way, the institution is besides the point.

The difference, perhaps, is in what I’m locating at the center of my desire, in what makes the gesture necessary. This goes back to intention, and I think that often gets lost when things become historicized or institutionalized.

When I first became aware of your work, it was largely because of The Revival. I was living in London and that work broke through to our consciousness there at the time. It was clearly rooted in live performance and music and sound and gospel. You have made other works that you have called “stages,” even if they might appear more as paintings to a conventional eye. But Who Is Queen? does stage things—even if there isn’t live performance in it, it is a stage of sorts.

It is absolutely a staged exhibition. I think one of the things that makes Who Is Queen? unique is that it does not feel static when you walk in. When I started working on the Black Dada paintings, I became interested in the question of whether a seemingly static space can have a liveness. Can it be live? And so I basically wanted to translate or transfer the affect of a live performance to a static space. That’s what I always want to do with the paintings, with the drawings, and with this installation: to create something that is static and yet live at the same time.

In the earlier chapters of this project and its development, you were actively engaged within and examining the Occupy Wall Street movement. And then Black Lives Matter emerged, and that became a key point of focus. At what point did this question of an occupation through protest become central to your thinking about what form this project would take?

I would say probably in 2012 with the onset of Black Lives Matter. But I also became fascinated with the language of the Stand Your Ground laws. George Zimmerman was able to take the life of Trayvon Martin because of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, and I was interested in what that means. That’s such a terrifying and impossible situation: someone has entered a space and you feel threatened, and now you can quite literally take someone's life. And so I wanted to find language that could stand its ground. For me, this was the articulation of a kind of occupation.

As you said earlier, this work began with the phrase “Who is queen?” and then a problematizing of your own vulnerability in that provocation. From that place, you’ve developed a number of different paintings and other works using language. Could you talk about how they operate in this installation?

The individual components function in relationship to a process of accumulation, where something is transfigured or transformed into something else. So something that may be limited by a particular approach to how it might be read becomes more capacious and open within the space of the work. A simple phrase like “We are not” may seem blunt and simplistic, but in the space of the work it is broken down visually into something else that is full of possibility but also, I would argue, of a sense of vulnerability. So what is fundamental about the work is looking for different kinds of marks, gestures, even scars, different kinds of realities and material facts that can be upended, rethought, and approached and seen differently.

There’s a long trajectory of artists engaging with words and language throughout the 20th century that extends from Surrealist automatic writing to Conceptual art. And I’m wondering about the question of language in this work and where it sits within a longer history of artists engaging with language.

Let’s just go to the ’80s because that’s when I was born. Let’s talk about Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger. I think the way in which I approach language in my work is very different from the way they approach language in their work. And I think that difference lies in the way in which critical thinking revolves around language. I don’t say revolved, I say revolves, because this is an ongoing project. It is still being rethought and repurposed and reimagined by a slew of writers like Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Simone White, and others before them like Joan Retallack, Jena Osman, and Leslie Scalapino. Leslie Scalapino wanted to create a live space, a future sense, a kind of continual presence within the written work. So someone like her is essential to Who Is Queen? because that’s very much what I would like to do within the space of the exhibition. Writers influence by paintings almost as much as any visual encounter I may have.

The artists you mentioned were very much on the frontlines of feminist politics, asking questions about what should art’s engagement with the social should be. And that, to me, is a fundamental question at the heart of Who Is Queen?

That’s the same question that black artists were faced with during the Black Arts movement. People asked, you’re making abstract paintings, don’t you see what’s going on around you? I think that’s one of the questions that Queen approaches—this tension between abstraction and politics, and the obligation of the artist in that space, but it should be clear that abstraction is as political as anything else.

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

To transition somewhat, let’s talk about the videos, and the question of dissonance.

As Glenn Gould notes, contrapuntal documentaries, contrapuntal radio, are a kind of writing and overwriting, which is at the heart of how the paintings in Who is Queen? function visually. I would also say that this kind of writing and overwriting is how the films function in relationship to each other. There’s a kind of erasure, right? What became so interesting to me about Notes on the Robert E. Lee Monument was that originally I had edited that piece and the figure standing in front of the statue was not present. There was no figure outside of....

Robert E. Lee himself.

Exactly. But then I realized there needed to be a counterpoint. One could say it’s finding harmony in dissonance, where things are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and melodic contour. I’ve always liked that definition of counterpoint.

You are from Richmond, so the Robert E. Lee film is about a public monument that has been the focal point of a nationwide conversation, but also about something personal. Throughout this project, there’s a flickering between the individual and the collective. Similarly, the Atrium is a vast space and your scaffold towers are currently among the tallest wooden structures in New York City. Yet there is a peculiar sense of intimacy to the installation, as much as there is one of something monumental. I wonder whether you have any thoughts about that relationship.

Can a work of art create a kind of intimacy or an intimate space? I mean, intimacy is such a material and private feeling. In a strange way, I don’t think if one's intention was to create moments of intimacy, or to conflate I with the we, that you could actually achieve it. I think it’s like happenstance, like something that just occurs. Here I think of Michael Hardt when he talks about the politics of love or the politics of joy, those moments when the collective has this sort of fleeting moment, fleeting feeling of becoming one. You can’t really put language to it. You can’t really map it or chart it.

Can you give us a little bit of background about your interest in Resurrections City and how it began to figure into this project on so many levels?

I was drawn originally to Resurrection City through the photography of Jill Freedman. The way she captured the people who occupied and existed within that space, there was a quality to the act of documentation of seeing others, of being seen in others and by others, that I found very specific and rare. And so her photographs were what made me investigate this moment in American history. You know, Resurrection City is an instance of a political and even an aesthetic avant-garde, but it’s still fairly unknown, undiscussed. Sometimes we think we've experienced the avant-garde to the point that it becomes passé, and then you encounter something like Resurrection City. You know, if Rosa Parks is and was the avant-garde—what an incredible sculpture, what an incredible gesture, we just didn’t realize what it was. And so I think there are all of these moments, and, of course, not just in American history, that contain these alternatives and other languages and other modes of being. And that, for me, is what the avant-garde is. It’s an alternative. It’s the chaos. It’s the beauty of chaos.

Your work raises the question of opacity, of a refusal to be known.

What right do you have to make these demands of me, to have clarity about who I am or who I want to be or who we are? Why is that clarity necessary? And of course this demand raises the stakes on the institution, because for it to explicate is what people expect, but let’s create radically new expectations. And that’s why, in a way, I’m tired of talking about the work, because I don’t want to explicate. I don’t want to explain. I just want to be.

Resurrection City, Washington, DC, 1968

Resurrection City, Washington, DC, 1968

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?

What sort of encounter do you hope a visitor might have entering the Atrium, if they really put in the time to watch the videos and pay attention to the operations happening within and between the videos, the paintings, and the scaffolds. What kind of engagement with history or the future do you hope this will facilitate?

I hope people will, quite frankly, do the work. And there’s a lot of work to do. The exhibition presents itself as an accumulation of labor. But, of course, it’s a choice—take it or leave it.

How did the pandemic affect you and how has the work changed since the pandemic began or since the uprising began?

The uprising didn’t occur last summer. It’s been ongoing for centuries. If you want to limit it to a more contemporaneous moment, it’s still been over a decade. You know what I mean? So it’s just, like, this is not last summer or last year or...that’s just willful ignorance. I don’t know what else to say outside of that. I don’t make art in a split second. I’m very given to drafts and revisions, and Who Is Queen? is both a draft and a revision.

Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?, organized by Stuart Comer, The Lonti Ebers Chief Curator, with Danielle A. Jackson, former Curatorial Assistant, and Gee Wesley, Curatorial Assistant, with the support of Veronika Molnar, Intern, Department of Media and Performance, is on view at MoMA through February 21, 2022.