An Extremely Intelligent Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s A.I. Art Extravaganza at MoMA Is Fun, Just Don’t Think About It Too Hard

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is being touted as Artificial Intelligence’s triumphant arrival in the museum-art canon. So I went to see the splashy installation currently in the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-floor annex with a mission, to get a glimpse of what MoMA-approved A.I. art promises, or threatens, for the future.

Born in Istanbul and currently based in Los Angeles, with a studio of more than a dozen people, Anadol was known for many years more for interactive public-art commissions than for work in museums and galleries. He boasts collaborations and support from the likes of Microsoft, NVDIA, and Google. In the recent past, his stock has dramatically soared—which makes sense given the fact that his work engages with three trends that have lately shaken up the art conversation: immersive installation, NFTs, and generative A.I. “Unsupervised” combines a bit of each.

Here is what you see at MoMA: A towering, high-res screen where abstract images morph hypnotically and ceaselessly. Sequences run a few minutes each, toggling between different styles of animation.

The most crowd-pleasing of these simulates a seething, gravity-defying cloud of colorful fluid, the palette based on colors derived from the works in MoMA’s collection. New colors are constantly swirling into the image and taking over, the whole thing surging in and out restlessly, like a psychedelic, drugged-out ocean wave. The high-res screen renders the simulated rainbow gloop convincingly thick and dimensional.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

While this mode is the most visually memorable, it is also the one that has the least clear connection to the ostensible Big Idea of the show. “Anadol trained a sophisticated machine-learning model to interpret the publicly available data of MoMA’s collection,” the show’s description explains. “As the model ‘walks’ through its conception of this vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been—and what might be to come.”

This premise is more directly enacted in the other two types of animation, which are also harder to describe. One evolves endlessly through blobby, evocative shapes and miasmic, half-formed patterns. Sometimes an image or a part of an image briefly suggests a face or a landscape but quickly moves on, becoming something else, ceaselessly churning. It looks like this:

A third type of animation does much the same, but with jittery networks of lines connecting different key points as the art-inspired shapes define themselves. I’m not totally sure what these vectors suggest, but they give the image texture and atmosphere. It looks like this:

Art History, Without the History

You can tell, in these latter two types of animation, that “Unsupervised” is manifesting art-like images specifically inspired by some constellation of works in MoMA’s collection. Despite a screen that appears as punctuation between sequences displaying dense graphics related to what you have seen, the exact operation is not really clarified.

The ever-new, synthetic images of Anadol’s “Unsupervised” are blobby and chaotic, and look exactly like what art made via Generative Adversarial Networks most often looked like before the breakthroughs of DALL-E and its A.I. ilk captured the imagination of the public last year: Woozy, semi-random, art-like visual outputs, with wispy, unresolved edges. They look a little bit like preliminary sketches for art you might have seen in the original data-set (or in the galleries)—if you squint.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

The effect is pleasant. What it is not is anything like what MoMA says it is: an experience that “reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been.”

MoMA has spent recent decades trying to move beyond the formalist ideas of art that it inherited from its founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. with his famous graph of Modernism as a bunch of styles mechanically branching off of one another. Generally, contemporary art historians would insist on rooting meaning in culture and context. Abstraction means one thing when its Gee’s Bend Quilts, another when it is Abstract Expressionism, still another when it’s Tibetan sand painting, and still another when you put a bunch of images into an A.I. blender and remix them.

It’s striking to see MoMA tacitly let a new high-tech formalism through the door, one even flatter and less historical than Barr’s—as if the curators were so excited by the wonders of A.I. that they didn’t notice. What the endorsement of “Unsupervised” as an alternative-art-history simulator insinuates, for its audience, is that art history is just a bunch of random visual tics to be permuted, rather than an archive of symbol-making practices with social meanings.


Dreaming… Reimagined?

Describing his works that use A.I. to make generative art out of huge datasets like “Unsupervised,” Anadol speaks of them as machine “dreams” or machine “hallucinations.” But the terminology, once more, mystifies what is going on.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

As Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, citing Coleridge, in dreams (I guess I have to specify here, in human dreams) emotional causality is reversed: “Images take the shape of the effects we believe they cause. We are not terrified because some sphinx is threatening us but rather dream of a sphinx in order to explain the terror we are feeling.”

But there is no emotional text to Anadol’s endless animation at MoMA. At most, the installation conveys a generalized awe at the machine’s superhuman capacity of visual analysis. (The fact that the soundtrack is a kind of shapeless, droning synthesizer score that is almost a cliché in “futuristic” video work doesn’t help.)

I sat through two hours of “Unsupervised.” I can’t think of a single image in it that evoked any feeling in me besides curiosity about what it might be referencing. As one might expect, they are just semi-random acts of syntheses and recombination of properties, expressing nothing about anything in particular except for the machine’s ability to do what it is doing.

Mis-recognizing Dystopia

I would contend that scraping away the ill-considered metaphors (e.g. reimagined art histories, dreaming) helps to better see what’s really happening in front of your eyes.

This would be nitpicking, though, if it weren’t for the fact that what these poetic readings of the technology are doing is selling us on a certain style of thinking about A.I. as a creative proposition, at a time when A.I. text-generation and A.I. image-generation are being deployed so fast that society is racing against the clock to catch up with the implications—as if “move fast and break things” hadn’t been discredited as a motto.

It is because Anadol has created such a purely decorative, cheerleader-ish style of A.I. art—so different than the critical lens that artists such as Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen have brought to the subject in recent years, with great impact—that he received so much support along the way from the tech giants. Indeed, his positivity is probably an unstated condition of that support.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a pervasive and perverse rhetorical sleight of hand in the art-tech conversation. Call it the willful misreading of dystopia. You hear technologists reference artworks that are meant as sci-fi cautionary tales but, weirdly, purely as positive design inspiration, divorced from their prophetic moral or ethical substance. The recently trendy idea of the “metaverse,” which comes from Neal Stephenson’s grim take on virtual reality in Snow Crash, is an obvious example.

Anadol is a notable dystopian mis-reader. When he refers to his works as “machine dreams” and “collective hallucinations,” he often says his inspiration is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In a TED Talk, he describes having his imagination fired by the moment in that movie when the android Rachael realizes that her memories are not real, but implants. “Since that moment,” Anadol says, “one of my inspirations has been this question: What can a machine do with someone else’s memories?”

Blade Runner is a melancholy work about the uprooted sense of self and collapsing sense of reality in a future where humanity and machine are no longer distinguishable. None of this seems to register with Anadol, just the idea that machine-generated memories are cool.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

Anadol’s first work that used A.I. to generate infinite new outputs based on a massive dataset was Archive Dreaming, executed in spectacular installation form in 2017, as an application of the experiments he had been engaged with at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program. It looked at 1,700,000 documents and generated ever-new images based on them.

In that same TED Talk, Anadol claims that Archive Dreaming was inspired by Borges’s famous short story The Library of Babel, which envisions a universe that is one never-ending library, whose books contain every possible combination of characters. But The Library of Babel was an intellectual horror story, a parable about the nihilism that results when all meaning collapses into nothing. When the inhabitants of Borges’s library finally realize the implications of the world they live in, they commit mass suicide!

The point is, these cultural references are mined in the most superficial way—very much as MoMA’s archive is sucked up in Unsupervised and stripped of real substance outside of pure visual inspiration. And so, you can read this style of art as emblematic of a moment in which tech aesthetic of perpetually novel gadgetry is dominant while the humanities, with their unprofitable baggage of historical and moral concerns, are being allowed to wither.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

And Then There Are the NFTs

Don’t get me wrong. “Unsupervised” is amusing enough on its own, if you look past the cloud of mystification. It’s a bit like an extremely intelligent lava lamp.

But if it seems a little vacant, there is reason to suspect that MoMA is incentivized not to ask too much of it.

With his background, Anadol was well-positioned to become one of the biggest stars of the NFT art scene during the crypto boom of 2021. In fact, his “Unsupervised—Machine Hallucinations—MoMA Dreams” line of NFTs based on MoMA’s collection is being sold on Feral File, the NFT marketplace from the well-respected art-technologist Casey Reas (one of Anadol’s former teachers at UCLA). “Ten years ago, when we asked, Can we mint machine memories and dreams in the blockchain of one of the world’s most inspiring archives? I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible,” Anadol enthuses in MoMA Magazine. “I mean it was a very Philip K. Dick idea, but I feel like we are, right now, truly doing it.” (Finally, a way for MoMA to play a part in bringing the cheerful world of Total Recall closer to reality!)

MoMA itself gets a percentage of the sales of the digital artworks—17 percent of primary sales and 5 percent of secondary. Surely showing “Unsupervised” prominently at MoMA has to be considered as a great ad for the associated line of NFTs that sends profits back to the museum (you can see the spike of trade in them that coincides with the show opening on OpenSea). The curators have been promoting the show with conversations featuring both Anadol and Reas, where they talk as much about NFTs as about the installation.

It may be that the exact same thing that makes this genre of work commercially appealing for people buying NFTs—its untroubled techno-philia—is what makes it feel flat to me as an artistic statement. The suspicion that MoMA is incentivized to fast-track this kind of art is going to linger.

Sadly, the melting of commercial and non-commercial borders strikes me as more prophetic of “what might be to come” in art than any of the images summoned up by the machine in the gallery.

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through March 5, 2023.

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The Man Who Allegedly Stabbed Two MoMA Staffers Has Been Extradited to New York and Charged With Assault

Authorities in Philadelphia have extradited Gary Cabana, the suspect in last year’s stabbing attack at Museum of Modern Art, back to New York, where he faces assault and attempted murder charges.

Cabana, age 60, is believed to be responsible for stabbing two MoMA employees after being denied entry to a movie screening at the museum, where he was formerly a member. Cabana is said to have snapped when he was informed that his membership had been revoked following earlier alleged incidents of disorderly behavior.

The incident took place on March 12, 2022. An ambulance transported both victims, a man and a woman, both aged 24, to Bellevue Hospital, where they were treated for injuries—one in the neck, the other in the left collar bone. The suspect fled the scene.

Philadelphia police arrested Cabana sleeping on a bench at a Greyhound bus terminal three days later, after he allegedly set fire to his room at the Philadelphia Best Western Plus.

Paramedics respond to a stabbing at New York's Museum of Modern Art. A 60-year-old former member of the museum was refused entry and stabbed two employees before fleeing the scene. Photo by C.S. Muncy.

Paramedics respond to a stabbing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A 60-year-old former member of the museum was refused entry and stabbed two employees before fleeing the scene. Photo by C.S. Muncy.

Since his arrest, Cabana has been in custody in Philadelphia, where he underwent psychiatric evaluation. Now back in Manhattan, he was scheduled to be arraigned in criminal court today, reports AMNY.

A former Broadway usher, Cabana lived in an affordable-housing building called the Times Square on West 43rd Street. According to friends, he struggled financially but spent what he could on museum memberships and tickets to movies and plays, sharing recommendations on his blog, the Reel Reviewer, and a Patreon.

MoMA stabbing suspect Gary Cabana, who was arrested in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the NYPD.

MoMA stabbing suspect Gary Cabana, who was arrested in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the NYPD.

“When the pandemic hit, it ruined his livelihood and his creative outlets. He had nowhere to go,” a friend of Cabana’s told Curbed. “That’s when he started to get really antagonistic and upset about the tourists that wouldn’t wear masks. He wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, I’m scared to get infected.’ He was saying, ‘You’re keeping me from having a job and having my creative outlet because you’re not following the rules.’”

Prior to his arrest, Cabana posted on Instagram alluding to having bipolar disorder.

“I was completely blindsided by the ‘letter’ from security without any meeting or consultation to explain my mental health situation and how important GREAT MOVIES are to my life,” he wrote. “When they said I couldn’t go upstairs to see STARRY STARYY NIGHT EVER AGAIN I lost it.”

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Barbara Kruger on Why She’s Remaking Some of Her Old Critiques of Power for Her New Museum Survey

Barbara Kruger likely needs no introduction. Her work is taught in art history classes and is instantly recognizable to the uninitiated as well (think of the ubiquity of Kruger’s November 2016 New York Magazine cover with ”Loser” printed across Donald Trump’s sneering face.) She’s also very publicly tangled with the streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo and entire branding seems to have pirated Kruger’s visual vernacular, causing a circus of copyright infringements that ultimately prompted Kruger to laugh it off: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.” 

Despite these outbursts in mainstream culture, Kruger has been rather inconspicuous in the art world in recent years. Her last gallery showing was in 2018 with Mary Boone, and while her slogans-as-statements have been spotted at art fair booths since, there really hasn’t been an important exhibition–until now. This past weekend, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled the largest comprehensive exhibition of Kruger’s work in more than 20 years. It will be on view until March 2022 before heading to the L.A. County Museum of Art, through July 2022, followed by a stop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Kruger, a powerful critic of contemporary culture, isn’t approaching the exhibition in a standard format. She’s taking over non-gallery spaces in the museums, as well as intervening into the public domain, alway seeking to offer her art in the most accessible modes. 

We spoke with Kruger about how she’ll be remixing some of her most famous works, the thousand-year persistence of power struggles, and her major new traveling museum survey.

Barbara Kruger, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. (2019). Digital image courtesy of the artist.

I was told you were calling this an “anti-retrospective,” but then I read that’s not true. What is the deal? 

To me, this exhibition is called “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” There we have the title of the show about our own ego constructions, our narratives, our ability to speak and listen, our investment in our voice, or others—all those shifting positions. So I would not call it a retrospective, it’s a conflation of new works and renovations of older works and changing them. 

This is just an open field, this isn’t a pushback, like “Wow, I have this terrific opportunity because these large-scale shows came a little later in my life.” I don’t have a MFA or an undergraduate degree. I loitered around for a few years before people knew my name. So I am appreciative not only to get to do a show like this, but of the great teams of people behind it. I take none of this for granted. I spent so many years doing all of this on my own before you knew my name, or anybody did, it’s a gift to me. I know how much labor has gone into this, and as someone whose parents traded their labor for wages, I have a great deal of respect for that. 

Tell me about the new works that are in dialogue with or a reevaluation of your previous works? 

There are different images of my work that have been altered through a very large scale of L.E.D. videos, in which I used motion graphics and animated a few of the works. Change meanings to make stillness move. There’s a large installation, Untitled (That’s the way we do it), which is basically a collection of images I’ve collected online over the last four or five years, and are folks’ renditions of my styles of work that I’ve incorporated into the installation. There are maybe 600 images? Things I’ve caught on Tumblr or Redbubble or Google Images and Instagram.  

In this exhibition there is the appearance of works that seem familiar to people, and the altering of the works (perhaps ruining them for some people) puts them in motion. Taking stillness and putting it into motion. There’s ambient audio throughout this exhibition, there are voices speaking to you in the halls and galleries, in the elevators and entries to the museum.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Truth) (2013). Collection of Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

You’ve played a significant role in designing the exhibition. Tell me about that.  Similarly, why was bringing work out in the streets crucial? 

Architecture has long been an engagement of mine, and it was only mid or later in my work that I was able to specialize. In the beginning it was very small, I was paying for everything myself and carrying it up five flights of stairs from the E train from the photo lab. As I started working with installations it was a great opportunity to engage the various spaces that the work was trying to make its meaning in. That’s so integral to my work, whether it was wallpaper or floors or surfaces, or even multi-channel videos which can change in scale so easily. 

Aside from billboards and posters on the elevated trains, bus kiosks, windows along main streets, large billboards along the highway, and the Merchandise Mart there’s a very huge video that will run every night for the next two months on the walls outside the museum and along windows on Michigan Avenue. That was really gratifying. It’s really wow, it’s really a great opportunity for me, and I never take for granted being offered that opportunity. 

I’ve always worked outside the museum space, from early on whether it was Art Angel in London or the Public Art Fund in New York, or out in L.A. That’s been an important space in my practice. Early on it was my only mode, I would snipe posters before people really knew my name or my work. I’ve said this before, but it’s still a surprise to me that things have rolled out the way they have. 

I think it’s amazing that the works have entered public space and discourse, and I think it’s part and parcel of the times we’re living in. The flow of images has changed so much because of social media and our online lives, and our lives on screens and through screens. In many ways my early work as a magazine designer really did prepare me for the kinds of readings that would be accessible online.

Barbara Kruger, still from Untitled (No Comment) (2020). Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and David Zwirner, New York. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

In an age where your works are shared so widely online, and consumed by internet culture to the point of appropriation, why do you keep your personal internet presence discreet?  

Well, I am online. I certainly read and look at everything. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and every right-wing website you can imagine. I certainly keep up on that. It’s important for so many people to use Instagram and Twitter as a means of self-definition, and making themselves public by really communicating their loves, their hates, their projects, and I really have chosen not to. I don’t think it’s something that’s productive for me. It’s certainly part of my life. It’s not like I’m sealed off. 

I get input on my work a lot. I think it’s best for me to do my work and be as productive as possible. You can’t be everyone’s image of perfection, so what the hell?

This exhibition could be called, perhaps, “a moment of reflection.” What’s your take on your work’s prescience? Whether about consumerism, feminism, or the attention economy, you’ve been rather spot on when it comes to understanding the politics and crises of today.  

I am not clairvoyant! Absolutely not. I just think that the long shot, the big picture allows you to understand how history has worked. And I’m no historian. I certainly don’t know as much as I should, but I am vigilant about the machinations of power and trolling, fear, grievance and how they’ve played out over centuries. Of course, the difference is now that we’re more aware of it, because of the interconnection of a lot of the world. Certainly fears based on genders, race, and class are stalking us as never before. 

Barbara Kruger. Artist’s rendering of exhibition entryway at the Art Institute of Chicago (2011/2020). Digital image courtesy of the artist, source photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

You’re known for your bold stances. Do you think that society’s modes of outspokenness have changed in the last few years as politics has heated up, and has that affected your practice? 

It’s not really affected my work. I really think that my work has been concerned with a scrutiny of how we are to one another. How we love one another, adore one another, detest one another, damage one another, how we caress one another on both an intimate and global scale. The history of the past thousand years is fraught with power and its abuses. 

I did an installation I originally did in 1994, and re-did in 2004 in Zurich, and somebody thought it was my reaction to 9/11. Of course it was done years before. The conditions exist for punishment and damage globally are not hot news. It is just a perpetual slaughter. It’s really horrifying! 

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Forever) (2017). Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA), Seoul. Photo by Timo Ohler and courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

Your work has always been about the underlying systems and structures of society—power, capitalism, control, bodies, and identities. Has your view of contemporary culture become more or less critical in these times where the stakes are so high vis a vis your practice?

I wouldn’t say critical. I’m just trying, like most art or music or movies, to create a commentary—not literal—of how it feels to live another day, to watch the world turn itself inside out or try to turn us inside out. The sort of commentary of what I see and read. The resolute grievance, ignorance, and race we are seeing right now. 

You once said, “People will need to think very hard about how they are to one another.” And I’m curious after the almost two years we’ve had, what your thoughts are on that now?

I am certainly not cynical, but I feel that it’s tragic. It’s watching a slow-motion car crash of the destruction of so many lives and the economy (and I’m not talking about big corporations). I’m talking about people’s everyday lives and their livelihoods. And the ironies. I could see there’s a place for productive critique of the hierarchies of governmental structure but that’s not this. This is fueled by race and rage, and grievance. 

You could tell people anything now, and they would say “it’s just a lie, the truth is this or that.” It’s interesting because social media and the digital universe have enabled so many things and made connection so much easier, but then also allowed for a great deal of damage and distress and punishment, and everything in between. Both the pleasures and the punishment. 

How you feeling about Supreme these days? 

It’s not anything I think a hell of a lot about. 

It’s funny, in the first room of the exhibition, where you see all these internet images, there’s a huge L.E.D. of “I Shop Therefore I Am,” and there’s a collection of images I got from RedBubble with all these garments with quotes or tees with sayings with them. It’s a meditation for me on the difference between the figure and the body. Who’s become visible and who doesn’t is such a complicated conflation of arbitrariness, of social conditions and all that, and yet you become a name, this person, this figure. I find it thrilling, amusing and a little scary.  

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Artist Adam Pendleton on Taking Over MoMA’s Atrium With a Monumental Tribute to Black Dada

For his first solo exhibition at a New York institution, the 37-year-old American artist Adam Pendleton has taken a big swing in the heart of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). 

Scaling three sides of the soaring atrium space, modular black 60-foot scaffolds support black-and-white text-based paintings as big as 10 by 20 feet; large-scale drawings; a massive screen for moving images; and speakers projecting a sound collage. Together, they form a single work of art titled Who Is Queen?, which opens on September 18. 

The monumental installation explores the artist’s concept of Black Dada, which has underpinned his work for more than a decade. He explores how theories of Blackness relate to abstraction and the avant-garde, and how mass movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter could influence the form of the exhibition. At the tail end of an eight-week installation, the Brooklyn-based artist took a break to talk about the long gestation of the show and the sum of its parts. 

Installation view of "Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andy Romer.

Installation view of “Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andy Romer.

How would you define the essence of Black Dada?

It’s a way of talking about the future while talking about the past. It’s about looking at Blackness as an open-ended idea that is not just related to notions of race. It looks at Blackness in relationship to politics, in relationship to art, in relationship even more specifically to the avant-garde. It’s kind of a framing device but it’s fluid and it’s unfixed. 

What was the genesis of this exhibition?

I did a residency at MoMA in 2011. It was a little-known secret that when [former MoMA associate director] Kathy Halbreich was at the museum, she invited a handful of artists to interact with the museum however they saw fit. Before meeting with her, I stayed up all night putting these different texts and ideas and artists and writers and thinkers together. I made this reader and handed it to Kathy: this is Black Dada. It was a kind of wild dream. The primary thing that came out of the residency was taking the Black Dada that existed in spiral-bound photo copies, DIY, and turning it into this hardbound book with essays from two MoMA curators and other curators who engaged with my work. Burning in the background was the idea for Who Is Queen?

Why did you choose that name—Who Is Queen?—for the show?

Queen could be a derogatory or loving—depending on who you are—name for a queer man. But specifically in Black culture, it has different connotations. If you’re an effeminate gay man, someone would say, “Oh you’re such a queen.” A long time ago, someone said this to me, and on the one hand I was offended and on the other hand I wanted to embrace it. Then I was repulsed by having to decide between one or the other. There’s something about being a vulnerable being in society. We’re all vulnerable in different ways and at different times. That’s at the heart of Queen, this idea of who we are, what we are, and looking at that in personal but also collective terms. It’s a question I pose to myself but also a question I’m posing to the viewer. 

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

So many of the paintings and drawings here are text-based, including two monumental canvases densely layered with the repeated phrase “We Are Not.” Is it important to you that viewers are able to decipher these or know the source of the text used?

In this instance, I’m referring back to a series of “We Are Not” statements I made in the Black Dada text I wrote in 2008. So not defining yourself by what you are, but by perhaps what you are not. We are not what they say we are. It’s this tension between legibility and illegibility, abstraction and representation, that is embodied in the piece visually but also within the language the painting utilizes. 

One of the things I want to do is get people’s attention. I want there to be this moment of recognition where you realize there is language. It’s legible, but layered or abstracted enough to refuse an immediate or easy interpretation. I think sometimes if you immediately read something and understand it, you move on. I’m much more interested in this site of engagement, where you actually stop and think about what you’re reading and what you’re looking at. 

Who Is Queen? was originally supposed to open last summer. In terms of content, what kind of an impact has the past year and a half had on the project?

One video is called Notes on Robert E. Lee, about the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, which is actually my hometown. That monument became a focal point during the summer of protest. It was completely transformed by graffiti. It’s fenced off and I shot it through the fences. That is something that is very responsive. [The stature of Lee was just removed from its pedestal last week.]

The statue of Robert E. Lee stands on the ground. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

I just locked the edits on all three of the video pieces that will be shown. There’s also a video portrait of the queer theorist Jack Halberstam and a piece that’s titled Notes on Resurrection City, an ad-hoc city that was resurrected on the National Mall in D.C. in 1968. It was up for six weeks. It’s commonly referred to as the culmination of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. It was a site where people from all over the country gathered—Black, white—and demanded economic justice. What really strikes me about Resurrection City was the architecture. They were using very simple two-by-fours to construct these A-frame structures that the people lived in. These structures elevated a humble material and created something unexpected out of ordinary wood. That’s an example of architecture that really influenced Who Is Queen?

Installation view of "Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andy Romer.

Installation view of “Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andy Romer.

How is sound being integrated into the work?

When the whole piece is “on” and all elements are conversant, you’ll hear the sound collage, and then when the sound collage is not audible, you’ll hear the audio from the video works. They’ll phase in and out. It’s all automated. It’s contrapuntal.  

The three core tracks of the sound collage are a 2014 phone recording of a New York solidarity protest in Manhattan with Black Lives Matter, a 1980 reading that the poet Amiri Baraka delivered at the Walker Art Center, and a 1994 composition by the composer Hahn Rowe called Yellow Smile. These are interwoven with music by Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman, Laura Rivers, Frederic Rzewski, Linda and Sonny Sharrock, and Hildegard Westerkamp. 

There’s also a series of podcasts I’m doing with people including Jack Halberstam, Lynne Tillman, Tyshawn Sorey, Alexis Pauline Gumbs—writers, philosophers, poets, musicians. They will be in conversation with each other. I’m operating as a kind of moderator. The audio [from the podcasts] will fold back into the sound collage. The exhibition is almost like a feedback loop. It’s generative. It’s basically an algorithm that does not allow for the same thing to repeat, even if it is using the same elements. Very much like life. No day is the same. 

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (HEY MAMA HEY) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (HEY MAMA HEY) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

I can’t think of another artist who has taken over this atrium so completely.

I don’t think they’ve ever had a piece that’s used the entire height of the atrium and transformed it into a space for painting, for drawing, for sound collage, for moving image. The piece becomes a different thing depending on where you are in the museum—on the third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor, sixth floor. You can look down and see it. It really plays with the experience and the architecture of the museum on multiple levels. I really think of Queen as a kind of beautiful machine. It’s an insertion of Black Dada into an institutional space—conceptually, theoretically, and just physically. 

Installation view of “Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andy Romer.

In the wake of the last year, when institutions have been held accountable on racism and equity in a new way, which kind of critique or disruption would you hope Queen delivers?

I hope that one of the things that Queen does is productively overwhelm the institution. Outside of just thinking about this institution, I hope as a concept, as an idea, as a form, it disrupts and reconfigures institutional spaces. I hope it breaks down the things we think are known. 


“Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from September 18, 2020–January 30, 2021.

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Here Are the 14 U.S. Museum Shows That Matter This Fall, From a Survey of 21st-Century Feminisms in Berkeley to a Radical Art Rediscovery in Atlanta

As museums begin to reopen in the United States, we cast an eye over upcoming exhibitions for those that promise the most urgent and notable art of our time. The resulting list contains a diverse roster of 14 shows—by solo practitioners and groups chosen by keen-eyed curators—coming to museums from coast to coast.

Some exhibitions will introduce you to artists you may not know, like Bani Abidi at the MCA Chicago, Michaela Eichwald at the Walker Art Center, and Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum. Others will offer new insight into artists or eras of artistic production you thought you knew, from a spotlight on Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography in Houston to a sweeping feminist art survey in Berkeley. 

Regardless of what city you’re in, this fall’s season of museum programming is bound to open both eyes and minds.


New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
August 28, 2021–January 30, 2022

Farah Al Qasimi, It’s Not Easy Being Seen 3 (2016). Courtesy the artist; The Third Line, Dubai; and Helena Anrather.

With 140 works by 76 artists and collectives, this exhibition at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is one of the largest to date on contemporary feminist art, and will coincide with a year of public programming focused on feminist theory. Works by the likes of Laura Aguilar, Christina Quarles, Zanele Muholi, Wu Tsang, and Francesca Woodman are included, tackling such topics as the fragmented body, domesticity, female anger, and feminist utopias. 


Raúl de Nieves: The Treasure House of Memory
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
September 1, 2021–July 24, 2022

Raúl de Nieves, The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more (2021). © Raúl de Nieves.

Multidisciplinary artist Raúl de Nieves is adored for his exuberant works that blend queer club culture, religious iconography, and folklore traditions from his native Mexico. Here, the artist continues his ongoing exploration of his culture and its traditions through a new body of work, created especially for the ICA, that looks at memory and personal transformation.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022 

Nellie Mae Rowe, This World is Not My Home (1979). Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Born in Georgia in 1900, the daughter of a formerly enslaved man, Rowe achieved fame as a self-taught folk artist. The first major exhibition devoted to Rowe in more than 20 years celebrates the late artist’s notable drawing career, which was only fostered later in her life, after the deaths of her husband and employer, in the 1960s. The museum bills the show as the first to position Rowe’s creative pursuit as a “radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights-era South.”


Joan Mitchell
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
September 4, 2021–January 17, 2022

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1992). Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This highly anticipated retrospective devoted to the queen of gestural abstraction contains over 80 works, encompassing everything from early paintings and drawings, sketchbooks, letters, and photographs to the large, color-drenched, multi-panel works that defined her later output.  


Selena Forever/Siempre Selena
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
September 4, 2021–January 10, 2022

John Dyer, Selena (1992). Courtesy of the artist.

At the height of the beloved Tejano singer’s fame, it was photographer John Dyer whom she entrusted to produce the images of her that were seared into the American pop-culture consciousness. Over the course of two collaborative photoshoots, in 1992 and ‘94, Dyer captured the legendary Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in her signature gemmed bustier and red lip, pictures that became immortal after her tragic death in 1995.


Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 4, 2021–June 5, 2022

Bani Abidi, An Unforeseen Situation 4. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Bani Abidi’s work infuses deadly serious subjects like militarism, nationalism, and memory with humor, holding up a mirror to power structures. The Pakistani artist, who lives in Karachi and Berlin, gets the survey treatment at the MCA, co-organized with the Sharjah Art Foundation, in a show that looks at over 20 years of her career and features new work alongside existing video, photography, and sound installations. 


Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?
Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 18, 2021–January 30, 2022

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Pendleton, who has put forth a “Black Dada” framework inspired by Amiri Baraka, ambitiously takes over MoMA’s Marron Atrium with an immersive floor-to-ceiling installation described as a “spatial collage” containing text, image, and sound. All together, the show’s paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures, and moving images seek to disrupt the 1:1 relationship of words and images, allowing a complex new vision of Blackness to emerge in abstraction.

The Art Institute of Chicago
September 19, 2021–January 24, 2022

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. Photo by Susan Broman via Flickr.

The prolific Pictures Generation artist has collaborated with the Art Institute to map out a survey of her entire career that takes up the whole of the museum’s 18,000-square-foot gallery space. It’s all here, and squirm-inducingly relevant: her trademark “pasteups,” works on vinyl, animations, and video installations, plus a new site-specific work in the adjoining atrium. On top of this, Kruger has created work for the city at large, making billboards and designs for the Chicago Transit Authority, among other organizations.


Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared
Dallas Museum of Art
September 26, 2021–May 15, 2022

Naudline Pierre, Lest You Fall (2019). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Pierre is known for her colorful canvases that depict ethereal beings and explore power struggles in intimate relationships. The Brooklyn-based painter’s first solo museum exhibition will consist of existing works—one of which was recently acquired by the DMA—as well as new creations, with five major paintings making their debut. 


Greater New York
MoMA PS1, New York
October 7, 2021–April 18, 2022

Robin Graubard, selection from “Peripheral Vision” (1979–2021). Image courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Antwerp.

One of the hottest survey exhibitions of new art from across New York’s five boroughs is back for its fifth iteration. This latest edition, curated by Ruba Katrib with Serubiri Moses, Kate Fowle, and Inés Katzenstein, was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, but still promises to showcase the best of artists and collectives currently working in the Big Apple, including Carolyn Lazard, Alan Michelson, and BlackMass publishing.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
October 17, 2021–January 17, 2022

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) (1964–68). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

The artist best known for her paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes is recast here in the first exhibition to focus entirely on her photography, with nearly 100 prints from a newly examined archive to go on view. Described as a “Modernist approach” to the art form, O’Keeffe’s pictures document family members, fellow artists, and her travels. 


Soft Water Hard Stone
The New Museum, New York
October 28, 2021–January 23, 2022

Amalie Smith, Clay Theory (2019) (still). Courtesy of the artist.

The latest triennial from the downtown institution draws its title from a Brazilian proverb: “Água mole em pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura,” meaning “soft water on hard stone hits until it bores a hole.” Curators Margot Norton and Jamillah James have translated this idea into an exhibition of 41 international artists focused on how systems we once considered infallible have been, in fact, proven fragile by recent global crises. 


My Barbarian
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
October 29, 2021–February 27, 2022

My Barbarian, Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2011–15. Studio photograph, courtesy of the artists.

For the occasion of the performance trio’s 20th anniversary, the Whitney has commissioned a new filmic piece, Rose Bird, about California’s first female chief Supreme Court justice, to accompany this two-part survey of My Barbarian’s work. A series of live events—including a play, a festival, a cabaret-style concert, and a “rehearsal-as-performance”―will be enacted alongside an exhibition containing footage of previous performances, in addition to sculptures, paintings, drawings, masks, and puppets.

Michaela Eichwald
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
November 14, 2020–May 16, 2021

Michaela Eichwald, Die Unsrigen sind fortgezogen (The Ours Have Moved Away) (2014). Collection Brian Pietsch and Christopher Hermann.

The Berlin-based artist and writer, who is primarily a painter, marks her first solo exhibition in the United States with a presentation looking back at the past ten years of her career. Her palimpsest-like paintings, sculptures, and collages contain surprising materials like candy and chicken bones, and often allude to her interests in philosophy and literature.

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