Superman Enters the Culture Wars

Denied Funds by the NEA, a Black Artist Crawls On

For Pope.L, wild misinterpretations are no surprise, especially in a culture that refuses to acknowledge its inherent contradictions. Disjuncture comes naturally to Pope.L, whose life and career are filled with anomalies. Pope.L is not a stage name, but a composite invented by his mother, who tagged the initial L for Lancaster, her maiden name, to his biological father's surname. Shuttled between a series of households in Newark and New York City—"a higgledy-piggledy childhood"—he was guided primarily by his maternal grandmother, Desma Lancaster, who once had a quilt show at the Studio Museum. "She took me to the Whitney to see a Jacob Lawrence show, so I got the idea that there was another museum where you could see African American artists," Pope.L recalls. "Of course, when I got there later on, I found out that was not necessarily the case." Ironically, Pope.L himself has not yet been shown at the Studio Museum, though its director, Lowery Stokes Sims, heralds him as "the poet laureate of male performance artists." Pope.L's work was included in the landmark "Out of Actions" exhibition at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998 but was left out of the Whitney's 1993 "Black Male" show.

His triumphant return to the Whitney as a participant in the prestigious Biennial has been a long time coming. After Pope.L's two decades working in a wide variety of media and even wider range of public spaces, the art world is finally catching on to his strategies. He had a solo exhibition at the Project in May 2001 and will have another at its West Coast branch this spring. And despite the NEA's recent denial of funds, his retrospective will open at ICA-MECA in July 2002, accompanied by a catalog, William Pope.L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America, published by MIT Press.

Taking a Wittgensteinian point of view: William Pope.L
photo: Jesse James
Taking a Wittgensteinian point of view: William Pope.L

Celebrated by the art world, dissed by the NEA—it's the type of contradiction that Pope.L relishes. "It's a Wittgensteinian point of view, that you can hold contraries, bound together, without blurring them together," he explains, going back to the fundamental principles motivating his art projects. "The fact is I am black and I am influenced by historically European-based art. I am interested in formal issues and I am interested in social issues. Think of it as a bunch of flowers—daisies, lilies, daffodils. I want you to hold them all in a bundle, but see them each distinctly."

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