Adam Pendleton, Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–17, video projection, black-and-white, sound, 13 minutes 5 seconds.

Adam Pendleton, Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–17, video projection, black-and-white, sound, 13 minutes 5 seconds.

Adam Pendleton

Seeing Adam Pendleton’s exhibition “These Things We’ve Done Together” so soon after trying to digest “Who Is Queen?,” his overwhelming, densely information-laden show that filled the five-story-high Marron Family Atrium at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, came as something of a relief. “The [MoMA] exhibition presents itself as an accumulation of labor,” said Pendleton of the presentation—and the viewer’s labor, if not the artist’s, could seem Sisyphean. But the piece certainly succeeded in “successfully fus[ing] a building and a situation,” to quote a phrase from Pendleton’s 2008 Black Dada Manifesto.

The show here is much easier to absorb. The installation consists of four very large paintings and fifteen drawings, all made between 2020 and 2021, along with an earlier video, all of which are executed in black and white. It’s unsurprising—though a bit retro—to see a video in black and white, but the complete absence of chromatic color in paintings on a vast scale is striking. Pendleton’s canvases embed the semantic space of writing, of textuality, within a field of energized drips and spatters reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism—a movement that had its own strong tropism toward the achromatic (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and of course Franz Kline all felt it, as did their successor Cy Twombly, with his blackboard works). Pendleton’s paintings are bluntly legible—the phrase WE ARE NOT appears over and over again, an insistent negation. The words keep flashing up like flares—a light more blinding than the surrounding darkness. The artist’s use of silk-screen ink rather than oil or even acrylic paint keeps his urgent marks bodiless, yet utterly corporeal in their optical intensity.

Some of the drawings eschew the paintings’ textual armature in favor of more abstract configurations, but one group of seven, executed in black on a dark-gray ground (and installed in a room painted the same gray) allows for half-legible fragments of writing to drift in and out of signification, like wayward ghosts. What hangs over all this work seems to be a question about where language comes from, and about who is speaking a given utterance. This notion takes on more direct salience in the video Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–17. Meeting in a Manhattan diner with the famous filmmaker/choreographer, Pendleton asks her to read a text he’s prepared. The work collages excerpts from historical documents by Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X with accounts of recent murders of Black people by police. In addition, the script contains descriptions of Rainer’s own 1966 dance piece Trio A (which despite its title is a solo, as we see in footage from a performance of it that has been cut in at the end). More striking than Rainer’s voice is her gaze—her eyes always wide, her face open. And yet I read profound wariness in it, though not without warmth—a sort of vigilant inner distance or neutrality that disappears for a moment when she reads out the litany of crimes against Black people, such as the killing of Eric Garner; on this occasion, something inside of her visibly breaks. “That is an impressive document,” she allows. In this instance, when voice, text, and gaze paradoxically unite in a breakdown rather than a mutual reinforcement, I begin to understand what Pendleton’s art is aiming at, regardless of medium.