For long, if someone asked him for his contact details, Pope.L would produce a business card proclaiming him “America’s friendliest black artist.” Sure enough, when he appears on a video call from his run-down Chicago studio, the performance artist and painter is kind and thoughtful. In a trucker cap and plaid shirt, he oscillates between smiles and thoughtful frowns as we follow his journey from a “rough” childhood to one of America’s greatest artists, whose work deals with race, economy and language.
In 2019, he was treated to a retrospective which, in an exceptional gesture, extended to both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. The exhibition showcased 40 years of endurance crawls, guerrilla performances, sculptures and text paintings. These textual paintings are now the focus of Notations, Holes and Humor, an exhibition that just opened at Modern Art in London, its first UK exhibition in over a decade.
“Purple people sing the praises of omissions,” the artist wrote in pen and ink on canvas for the new exhibit. The phrases in the works are often difficult to discern, interspersed with painterly washes and frequently incorporating deliberate typos and absurd elements. “The purples are the end of oranges”, one reads in an older work. “Golden people shit in their valet,” another informs us. Some are more uncomfortable: “Blacks are window and window break”; “White people are the gods to apologize.”
“I was thinking about the way people use fanatic language,” says Pope.L, who is 66. “It’s almost a physical act. It’s like throwing something at someone. I started doing these experiments where I was just writing something and thinking about the delivery. Depending on how you wrote it, it could be a slogan, or maybe something even more indifferent, a statement. Is this said as an accusation? A description?”
The work is rooted in his childhood. “My family was very poetic. We were hanging out on a Sunday and my uncle and aunt would come and we would be in the kitchen and they would start tossing poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. My family worked, worked with their hands. You might think they didn’t have an intellectual world, but on Sundays it could flourish. After dealing with Hughes and Brooks, they began to play with their own language, their own playful phrases.
Pope.L began text paintings while in art college in the late 1970s. Although he took inspiration from black literature and avant-garde art, as well as of the Fluxus movement, writing is a form to which he turns out of necessity. “I knew I was going to be as poor outside of school as I was at school. Writing was a very portable thing that I could do.
This is the same reason he started the street performance. In 1978, dressed in a suit as if he had left for the kind of office work that was largely foreign to his upbringing, he crawled through Times Square in New York City, then a magnet for the homeless. , sex workers and drug traffickers. The work mixes a feeling of vulnerability with that of protest, undermined with sly humor: oddly, he squeezes a potted plant everywhere. It was the first of more than 30 crawl jobs. In 2001, he donned a Superman outfit and crawled his way, on all fours, from Broadway to his mother’s house in the Bronx. “I wanted to find a way to do whatever I wanted that didn’t need anyone to support it. I didn’t need a room and I didn’t need any items. I just needed the opportunity that I could create for myself.
A 1991 crawl was titled How Much Is That Negro in the Window. Why did he use a title that so many people wouldn’t feel comfortable articulating? “I thought it would be interesting to present it as a jingle, like a musical,” he says. “So you have this idea of pain and struggle sitting next to lightness. This language is a problem, but it is also an interesting problem. How to make these words accessible without losing the sting of their character. It’s a writing problem, and it’s a performance problem.
Although he now enjoys institutional support, the idea of self-sufficiency in his performance practice is rooted in childhood. He was born to a single mother in a black neighborhood in New Jersey. “I realized that my family, even with these Sunday mornings, was made up of struggling people. Everyone in that kitchen was spoiled, drug addicts. My mother went to jail for a year or two. It was a very pivotal moment because I came to see myself as separate from her. I was a child before. She had fits of mind at least, to be clean. It worked until no. And then it came crashing down on me and my three siblings.
His mother assumed he would join the military after school as there was little precedent for the children in his neighborhood beyond that, but his grandmother, a housekeeper whose clients included several living artists. in richer neighborhoods, had other ideas. The 11-year-old Pope.L was taken in to help clean a portrait painter’s house, and Grandma introduced her grandson as an aspiring artist. The man made him sit down and made him draw. Pope.L continued to study art, first at the prestigious Pratt Institute, but was forced to drop out for lack of money. After a few years in factory jobs, he entered Montclair Public University. “I realized that my education was my responsibility and that a sophisticated art school was not going to solve my problems. I was like, ‘Damn, I could go anywhere. It’s up to me to decide, I have to make my education what I want it to be.
One of his biggest learning experiences was The Black Factory, a more recent project. In 2004, the artist bought a truck and toured America, asking people to donate items to a continuing archive of items associated with darkness. Certain objects handed over bear witness to pure and simple racism: an extra-large condom, a “pimp” car, a banana. “Then there were all these things that had nothing to do with darkness,” he says. “It was just something personal to them.” In the database you can find children’s toys, tableware, a calculator. “I realized that for a lot of whites, mostly whites, their race experience is personal. I never thought my racing experience was just mine. I realized that I had learned something. In race mythology – that’s all mythology, isn’t it – they white people are separated and separated from color coding. But then there is this leak. They have some relation to it, but it’s written in the staff. A friend, or an experience. They do not see in a larger political context the fact of having people who have power and people who are not.
If Pope.L was once an outsider, with all the helplessness that goes with it, he’s now adopted by the establishment. He has exhibited at the Whitney, Liverpool and São Paulo Biennials and at Documenta. He is represented by various commercial galleries (although he says they sometimes despair of how to monetize his work: “I’m not Jeff Koons”) and also teaches. While he is grateful for the support, he doesn’t take it for granted. “The institution always revolves around itself,” he says of museums.
In response to Black Lives Matter, the art world has done a lot of introspection on its own complicity in racism, expanding access to black artists and diversifying public collections. “I don’t know what young black artists think,” he says. “If they think it’s due to them because they’re geniuses, that could be a problem. I mean maybe you are. Maybe you are not. But someone has a use for you.
There is always that one question, he said: “Does an institution do it for blacks or does it do it for itself?” Well, that’s an interesting question. Am I complicit in these problems if I agree to collaborate with them? Or, as my mother would say, ‘Maybe these people we have trouble with can still be allies.’ ” He smiles. “They will never be suspicious – you have to keep an eye out, know who you are dealing with. She said, ‘You must be a wise collaborator.’ Whether it’s your landlord, to whom you owe three months rent, or a museum.