The Classical in Cleveland: From Jean-Michel Basquiat to Adam Pendleton

I just returned from a quick visit north to Cleveland where I visited two brilliant exhibitions: Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible at MOCA. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s recourse to the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome is well-known and documented and it was exciting to explore up close two brilliant examples on display in this exhibition: the large painting Untitled (1981) and the free-standing work Famous (1982).

In the latter includes the names of the Roman emperor Tiberius and the philosopher Plotinus.

While in the former there appears a chronology of Roman history, including the battle of Philippi and the sack of Rome.

As for Adam Pendleton, you may recall earlier this year I conducted an imaginary interview with Pendleton on Minus Plato about Pendleton’s ongoing project Black Dada in which I explained how I had no idea how to connect his work to Classics, the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. My imagined Pendleton replied with a definition of Black Dada, the same definition that is included in a real interview he gave for the MOCA magazine Push:

That’s a question I’m often asked. The simplest answer is that it is away to talk about the future while talking about the past.

Although in Cleveland I was able to discover a moment in his work that referenced the Classical past: one of a group of six prints, a silkscreen composition that included a section from an essay in which there is a reference to a series of major shifts in intellectual perspective, including that made by ancient Greek philosophy in the 5th Century B.C.E.

Yet to emphasize this moment of Classicism in Pendleton’s work and in some way to align it with those in Basquiat’s was to overlook a broader way in which Pendleton engaged with something broader that we could call ‘The Classical’. ‘The Classical’ is a capacious term that encompasses more than a short-hand for the legacies of ancient Greek and Roman cultures and, as such, is more expansive than the related concept of Classicism. ‘The Classical’ is an idea that operates at the heart of contemporary culture and art as a valuation process transposed from the present onto the past, the other to the self, the contingent to the (presumed to be) permanent. When we use the adjective ‘Classic’ or call something ‘Classical’ or ‘A Classic’ there is a double-edged operation in which value and certain formal proprieties are bestowed something or some action (on a car, a piece of music, a comedy sketch etc) which at one and the same time creates a necessary distance from the contemporary, but also enacts a realignment of the contemporary and paves the way for a different future.

Pendleton’s work engages with several aspects of ‘The Classical’, but most clearly is the overall project of Black Dada. In the Black Dada paintings in the Cleveland exhibition Pendleton brings his work into dialogue with two different traditions within the American experimental creativity: Sol LeWitt’s 1974 Incomplete Open Cube sculptures and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’.

At the same time, his desegregation of these two past traditions are combined with the present moment and a call for a different future in the way that he incorporates one of the Black Dada works in a complex installation involving his Black Lives Matter work.  (The Black Dada painting literally covers the ‘M’ of the ‘Matter’ of ‘Black Lives Matter’)

Furthermore, Pendleton’s expanded use of ‘The Classical’ could be brought to bear on the too-simplistic and limited way that Basquiat’s work has been discussed in terms of his use of Classical references. Just as Pendleton’s Black Dada bridges minimalism and colonialism, Black Lives Matter and modernist primitivism, consider a work like Basquiat’s 1981 drawing (also found in his notebooks) Famous Negro Athletes. Here a reference to racist stereotyping (‘they all look the same’) is contrasted with the singularity of these athletes’ fame and the specificity of baseball as one of the sports at which one such athlete excels.

In one of the notebook entries, Basquiat adds one of his iconic crowns to further emphasize his singling out of the prestige of these figures.

When read alongside these works, Basquiat’s lists of famous Greek and Roman names is significantly neutralized for their elitist and racially privileged authority and, like Pendleton’s appropriations of LeWitt’s cubes, become part of a drive towards a future where Black Lives Matter. For both artists it is vital that their uses of ‘The Classical’ expand beyond mere references to Classical antiquity and encompass broader gestures of using the past to pave the way for the future.

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