Adam Pendleton: exploring the connections between art and language


Adam Pendleton is undoubtedly among the most innovative conceptual artists of our generation. At just 35, he has created his own visual language and conceptual system which allow him to produce meaningful analyses on burning social issues such as racism, colonialism and black identity in today’s American society.



Born in 1984, Adam Pendleton became passionate about art in his childhood. He first studied the works of artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and taught himself how to paint before attending an art program in Italy in the early 2000’s. Once he graduated, Pendleton moved to New York to become an artist and soon got his first group exhibition in the city. His works drew the attention of the famous minimal artist Sol Lewitt, who even bought a piece and helped him establish his reputation in the New York conceptual art scene.

A piece from the "System of Display" series

Since his first solo exhibition at Yvon Lambert Gallery in 2005, Pendleton has created a personal style based on the appropriation of cultural references and the exploration of language as a tool to deconstruct and create new meanings. His works typically mix different types of content taken from a wide range of disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, fine arts, architecture and cinema.


Pendleton’s series "System of display" (2015-2016) perfectly illustrate these characteristics. Indeed, each work is composed of a picture taken during African Independence in the 1950’s or a sample of modernist imagery from the 1920’s and 1930’s. These images are photocopied in black and white and combined with letters or pieces of words printed on a glass lid inside a black frame.


These works can be analyzed at two levels: when taken alone, they symbolize the interconnection and fluidity of language and images. But when viewed together, they become a criticism of the social hierarchy that favors Western aesthetics over black culture and African history.


The mural "Victim of American Democracy I" (2015) is another emblematic work of the artist. It is made with reassembled pieces of the spray-painted slogan "Black Lives Matter", which became famous during the anti-racist movements triggered by the assassination of Trayvon Martin by a white man in 2012.


A fragment of the artist's mural "Victim of American Democracy I"

In this work, the 3 words of the slogan are torn apart and made illegible, thus symbolizing the fundamental contradictions that exists within the claim itself. Indeed, black movements are struggling for more visibility within American society while asking at the same time for the right to go unnoticed by authorities and institutions. Thus, "Victim of American Democracy I" is the perfect example of how Pendleton manages to create new meanings by deconstructing language.


A monochromatic piece from the "Black Dada" series

But the artist’s most important contribution is unarguably the concept of "Black Dada", which is present throughout his work. This concept, was first coined by African-American poet Amiri Baraka in 1964. Although Pendleton himself remains vague about its signification, he offered us a few hints in the 8-page manifesto that he wrote on the subject in 2008:

« Black Dada is a way to talk about the future while talking about the past. It is our present moment. »

- Black Dada Manifesto



Further in this text, Pendleton mentions Dadaism as a source of inspiration for this concept. Indeed, according to him, the Dada poets "released language from its obligation to merely communicate" by reinventing the way we assemble words together. As a consequence, Pendleton describes Black Dada as a "hidden, unreadable and unknowable language" that can only be spoken through images and fragmented references.


Thus, this concept is a metaphor for everything that cannot be conceived with words, the subtle nuances and hidden meanings that formal language is unable to grasp. It allows him to accurately describe his practice as a conceptual artist without betraying the complexity of his work.


Exhibition view for Pendleton's last show at Pace London in 2018

Adam Pendleton signed with the prestigious Pace gallery in 2012. He has since gained considerable institutional recognition around the world and his works are now held in the collection of leading museums such as the MoMa, the Guggenheim, and the Tate gallery in London. His next major solo show will be held at Max Hetzler Gallery from 25 April to 29 June 2019 in Berlin.

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