Superman Enters the Culture Wars


SUPERMAN PLANS CRAWL UP BROADWAY! Not the comic book hero, but the real-life African American performance artist William Pope.L, who has recently emerged as something of an underground hero himself. Dressed in a store-bought Superman costume, Pope.L is about to launch a marathon crawl through Manhattan. A perfect metaphor for post-9-11 New York, this piece, titled “The Great White Way,” has earned Pope.L a coveted spot in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. But just as his project is scheduled to begin, the unlikely caped crusader has gotten caught in the crossfire of the culture wars. When the National Endowment for the Arts announced its first round of grants for fiscal year 2002 in late December, acting chair Robert Martin refused to authorize $20,000 for “William Pope.L: eRacism,” a traveling retrospective of the artist’s 20-year career organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art (ICA-MECA). Martin’s action, overturning the recommendations of the NEA review panel and the National Council for the Arts, summoned up the bad old days of

Jesse Helms and the NEA 4, not to mention Giuliani’s more recent attacks on the works of two other black artists, Renée Cox and Chris Ofili. ICA-MECA, in conjunction with the show’s two other venues, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and Houston’s Diverse Works, issued a statement questioning the agency’s decision. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which had already granted $50,000 toward the exhibition’s total cost of $165,000, called the action “the NEA’s latest attack on freedom of expression.” Martin’s decision—ostensibly calculated to keep his agency out of the spotlight while the Senate quietly confirmed Michael Hammond as the new chair of the endowment—backfired seriously.

“The NEA has an institutional responsibility not to bring besmirchment to or blacken, if I may, their character by valuing work that can possibly bring criticism on them,” says Pope.L, 46, in response to the decision. “But in limiting themselves, they encourage a particular way of looking at American culture, don’t they?” This is the mild-mannered response of the artist playing Clark Kent, or as he likes to call himself, “the friendliest black artist in America”—a tongue-in-cheek title aimed directly at those who still fear the presence of a black male in the halls of culture. Pope.L, a professor of theater and rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and a graduate of the Whitney Independent Studies Program with an M.F.A. from Rutgers, chooses his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks carefully. He knows his presence can be read as threatening, but there’s nothing he can do about that—except play along in ways that challenge our expectations of African American art.

Attention has come gradually to Pope.L, who has often worked just beyond the star-making machinery of the gallery system. One early work, “How Much Is That Nigger in the Window?,” required the artist to stand on street corners or sit in performance spaces doused in mayonnaise. In another, “ATM Piece,” he stood before a Chase Manhattan branch dressed only in a skirt made of $1 bills, which passersby were free to grab. In 1998, “My Niagra,” his first installation in Harlem’s the Project transformed the artist’s body into a disturbing spectacle: splayed out on a rack, naked except for an orange ski cap and heavy yellow boots. “Eating The Wall Street Journal,” performed most recently at Sculpture Center in 2000, skewers our reliance on the “bible of financial news,” with Pope.L literally digesting the newspaper while sitting on a toilet mounted 10 feet in the air. These Fluxus-inspired performances combine influences as diverse as Joseph Beuys and Paul McCarthy with African bocio rituals and Richard Pryor routines.

“In America, blackness is treated as very obdurate, one-dimensional, but I was influenced by thinkers like Frantz Fanon—a sense of black identity as something constructed and unstable,” explains Pope.L. “In painting or sculpture, blackness is a picture—it is subject matter—but I knew if you disseminate it through different mediums, it could be looked at as more of an idea, like the way white artists are allowed to have ideas.” One idea that continually intrigues Pope.L is the use of physical vulnerability to unmask the public face worn by African American men—from the machismo of Puff Daddy to the respectability of Martin Luther King. “The preachers in my church were the first men I saw who made use of this,” he says. “Ordinarily, they were dressed dapper—handkerchief in their pocket, shine on their shoes. But when it comes to Sunday, they’re on their knees, crying and making a mess of themselves. And everyone knows that the way you rate the sermon is how much of a mess they made of themselves.”

The last time Pope.L’s work came under scrutiny was during the NEA reauthorization hearings in 1996. At that time, right-wingers criticized the agency for awarding three grants to Pope.L—in 1993, ’94, and ’95—before Jesse Helms put an end to individual artist grants. They specifically pointed to one performance,”Member aka a Schlong Journey,” in which the artist traipsed through Harlem wearing a 14-foot white cardboard phallic projection. “It is a piece about trying to own whiteness, male whiteness, through the phallus, and I wanted to do it in a black environment, where I became a spectacle and the site of questions,” Pope.L says. In the Senate, “Schlong Journey” was used as evidence of the NEA’s irresponsible support of “indecent” artworks.

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.

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.”