American Performance Artist
Newark, New Jersey
Summary of Pope.L
Crawling on his belly in the street is, for Pope.L, a way to critique the American dream, the invisibility of unacknowledged poverty, and the experience of being a Black man in the United States. His varied and diverse artworks range from these performative crawls, including his horizontal journey along the entire 22 miles of Broadway in New York, to the 720-square foot American flag he installed in a gallery, waving continuously in the breeze of an industrial fan for a week. His artworks have pushed the limits of his body and challenged audiences to react to the complexity of the questions he raises, whilst also often finding the humor or absurdity in tragedy and inequality. His business cards proudly proclaim him to be "The friendliest black artist in America©".
These sustained practices of performance, installation and participatory projects address power and discrimination, and speak fundamentally to questions of racial identity, masculinity, and class in the contemporary United States. As the urgency and relevance of performance art is increasingly being acknowledged by major institutions and the wider art world, Pope.L's diverse and continuing career is now recognized as deeply significant to the development of the form in the United States and beyond.
- Pope.L's work interrogates what he calls "have-not-ness", the quality of vulnerability that derives from being poor and/or not-white in America. He embodies this in his performances by staging and revealing absurd dynamics of power, challenging them by intervening in public spaces through his own body or the objects he places in a gallery.
- Pope.L's work is influenced by and engages with a wide range of art forms, including theatre, poetry and literature, sculpture and painting. Paramount across all his work though is the physical interaction between the artist, the artist's body, and the audience or viewer, a goal that accounts for his continuing focus on public intervention and his significance to the development of Performance Art.
- Pope.L argues that whilst a document such as a photograph or short video might encapsulate the core idea of a performance (such as his endurance crawls in city streets) it is through the work's existence in the physical world that they derive their meaning. Documents for Pope.L are about 'lack', and looking at documentation of a performance or artwork is a fundamentally different experience from being exposed to them in the real world.
- Race, class and gender exist in dialogue throughout Pope.L's work, prefiguring what is often thought of as a contemporary awareness of the intersectional nature of identity. As a working-class Black man, Pope.L's experience is derived from the unique interaction of these identity positions, an interaction that he reflects on throughout his artworks and asks the audience or viewer to confront, in all their messiness. This work has proven inspirational for a generation of artists interested in exploring their identity, particularly African-American artists. Whilst he might resist the label, Pope.L therefore has an important relationship to the history of Identity Art.
The Life of Pope.L
Pope.L's art reflects his identity and experience as a working-class Black man in America, staging his perspective on the way the world sees him. As he puts it "I act out in the street for myself, but also because I see myself in the street".
Progression of Art
Times Square Crawl A.K.A. Meditation Square Piece
In the first of his now trademark crawl pieces, Pope.L wore a brown suit with a yellow square on the back and crawled on his hands and knees down a seedy stretch of West Forty-Second Street, a red-light district then referred to as "the Deuce". Prior to a massive revitalization effort in the 1990s, this area around Times Square was notorious for its adult entertainment venues and illegal activities such as the drug trade. Large populations of homeless people also lived in the area. For Pope.L, Times Square Crawl developed out of a desire to call attention to the issue of homelessness at a time when some of the artist's own family members were living on the street. As he explained, "I hadn't gotten used to it, but it seemed as if people were devising strategies in order not to see the homeless. We'd gotten used to people begging, and I was wondering, how can I renew this conflict? I don't want to get used to seeing this. I wanted people to have this reminder."
Pope.L saw the notion of crawling as a way to physically "get inside" the body of someone on the street. For the artist, crawling "brings us back to basics." He explains tha t "we crawl as small children, not because we are humiliated but because we are learning to be human. Crawling is a way to remind ourselves of our common struggle to be human." He also views crawling as a means of "giving up our verticality," which takes away our "urban power", opens us up to a wide range of dangers, and results in "paranoia and anxiety". This reorientation allows us to learn something new, especially when it is turned into an act of endurance. As he explains, when "moral virtue has traditionally been tied to uprightness of body carriage, for a healthy, sane person to choose to give up his or her verticality can be perceived as arrogant and attention-seeking. But I believe this interpretation dissolves or at least becomes less tenable when a viewer/participant watches a crawler for an extended period of time".
Wearing a suit whilst crawling on the ground is, for the artist, a form of "contradiction", as the suit is "an icon of privilege". Cultural historian C. Carr assert that Pope.L "crawls in a suit so he'll signify, so he'll be seen as someone who shouldn't be in the gutter, so he'll be seen - period." The use of a suit in his crawl pieces has prompted severe reactions in witnesses, such as an African-American man who confronted Pope.L and shouted at the artist "I wear a suit like that to work! [...] You make me look like a jerk!" during a 1991 performance. Carr, who witnessed the incident, understood the response as deriving from the way in which Pope.L's performance comments on the bodies of Black men in America and their participation in everyday life.
Pope.L's crawls have become a significant and sustained part of his practice. He has repeated the action over thirty times over five decades, sometimes dressing in a suit and sometimes in other costumes, such as a Superman outfit with a skateboard strapped to his back. Some crawls occur on a single day, and some are stretched out over several years. Some he does alone, and some are participatory affairs, with viewers invited to crawl alongside him (as in 2019's Conquest, for which over 140 volunteers joined in a crawl across New York City). The public nature of the crawls allows for organic interactions to occur, interrogating the question of presence in urban space.
I Get Paid to Rub Mayo on My Body
As part of his 1991 project How Much Is That Nigger in the Window, Pope.L sat in only shorts in the front window of the nonprofit arts organization Franklin Furnace and smeared Hellman's mayonnaise on his body. By thus applying mayonnaise, he temporarily painted himself white, until, as time passed, the mayonnaise turned transparent and developed a rancid smell. By sitting in the shopfront, he presented himself as a consumable commodity, reenforced by the title of the project (which also, as artist and critic Aria Dean notes, addressed "the impossibility of his being anything other than black").
For Pope.L, mayonnaise serves as "a bogus whiteness" that "reveals its lack in a very material way" (by becoming clear over time as it oxidizes). He explains that with mayo, "the more you apply, the more bogus the act becomes. The futility is the magic." The artist also emphasizes that mayonnaise, like peanut butter (which he has used as a material in other projects) interests him as a "cheap" food that he ate as a poor kid. Due to their texture these foods are also able to be used "viscerally", reflecting "how performance and culture was constructed in church. Visceral, visceral, and more visceral. It works in your body as well as your soul. [...] I want the visual to be more physical."
This performance speaks to a long history of performance artists using food in their artwork, drawing on the cultural and social connotations of certain foods alongside their material quality to embody complicated ideas of identity and discrimination. Artist and writer James Hannaham notes that this performance by Pope.L bears a striking resemblance to the performance enacted one year earlier by American artist Karen Finley (We Keep Our Victims Ready), for example, in which she smeared chocolate over her body in order to raise questions about sexual violence and the degradation of women. In Finley's performance the chocolate symbolized the way in which women are "treated like dirt", but was also a subversion of the sexual connotation of chocolate covering a woman's body. Pope.L's use of food similarly operates on levels of signification and symbolic resonance, with the artist asserting that "Mayo and peanut butter allow me to think about race in a more playful, strange, and open-ended way. For example, the idea that there's a pure good blackness or a pure bad whiteness is untenable for me. I use contradiction to critique and simultaneously celebrate."
The Black Factory
For his "nomadic participatory work" The Black Factory, Pope.L took a white 1989 GMC Step Van and divided it into three expandable sections: a library, a workshop, and a gift shop. He and his team travel around the United States in the van, engaging citizens in meaningful dialogue that "interrogates the public nature of blackness". As the artist puts it, "The Black Factory is an industry that runs on our prejudices. That means you don't have to come to us, we come right to you! [...] We harvest all your confusions, questions and conundrums, and transform them into the greatest gift of all: possibility!" Local residents visiting The Black Factory are asked to donate objects that "represent blackness" to them. Objects donated by audiences have included racist figurines, R&B albums, cheap canned food, images of Martin Luther King Jr., Ku Klux Klan hoods, and the ashes of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy. Some of these items are then emblazoned with The Black Factory logo and re-sold at the gift shop, with the proceeds being donated to local charities and food banks.
At each stop, some of Pope.L's team members perform skits and interact with audience members to drive the conversation around the nature of blackness in America. Before each stop, the team research issues specific to the location to tailor their presentations and questions to the local population. The artist explains "I think it's important to try to talk about difference, or what separates people, and what brings them together in a public way. The idea is to maybe bring back some sense of a public square kind of atmosphere.[...] You want people to feel that they can enter the discussion. At the same time, I don't want them to get the idea that the discussion is going to be easy." Indeed, some of their performance tactics are jarring, pushy, shocking, or even inflammatory, such as having performers in blackface and hockey masks ask spectators "what kind of nigger are you?". Says Pope.L, "Comfort is necessary to create a platform of trust and commitment. Discomfort is necessary to create a stronger platform by introducing the unfamiliar.[...] Failure and trial and error are a necessary part of this process." As arts writer Jonathan Lachance asserts, "The Black Factory hovers somewhere between an impromptu performance by a clique of off-kilter buskers and shock art served straight up."
Pope.L had the idea for The Black Factory when thinking about the question "what divides black people?", explaining that he wanted to "give back to blackness. Because, no matter what anyone says about blackness being a wide horizon of possibilities, as Malcolm X said, you're still a nigger. And many people still categorize you in a very narrow way." For the artist then The Black Factory "does not make blackness, it makes opportunity [...] the Factory is a conversation piece on wheels. It's a chance for folks to open up their hearts and minds, laugh and talk freely, maybe even disagree about what brings us together as well as what divides us."
Skin Set Drawing: Black People Are the Window and the Breaking of the Window
This work comes from Pope.L's series Skin Set Drawings (1997-ongoing) and is one of a number of his works that use text within an image. Here orange letters spell out the phrase "Black People are the Window and the Breaking of the Window" against a gridded background splashed with yellow and featuring small drawings, including a noose in the top right of the image. Whilst the phrase is not straightforwardly legible, it has a poetic and symbolic resonance that invites reflection and engagement on the question of race and racial history. As art historian Darby English notes, in the Skin Set Drawings, "We detect nonsense, but feel that some sense is being made".
For Pope.L, who has always been passionate about language and writing, his Skin Set Drawings engage with language at the level of the "mixed message", in that they poetically say multiple things at the same time. He takes "color-based language" and plays with it, using language as image and image as language, to construct what curator Bennett Simpson and Pope.L's studio manager Aliza Hoffman call "pointed, absurd and layered messages about the vagaries of color". Many scholars, such as artist and critic Aria Dean, see the Skin Set Drawings as evidence of Pope.L being a "trickster" as per African and Black diasporic folklore. According to literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., the trickster outwits his enemies by "speak[ing] figuratively, in a symbolic code." Arts writer Alan Gilbert asserts that the Skin Set Drawings "are brilliant, funny, painful, angry, and absurd declarations about blackness and whiteness".
Pope.L himself sees these images as speaking to the "history of black people being constructed as valueless or threatening or nothing. If you hold up a mirror to certain white liberals, and you say, 'Hey you know, you're right! You've got a point. Black people are pieces of shit,' they'd get nervous. Me, I've always rejected whites when they spoke about blacks, as if what they had to say had no credibility. But then I thought, What if I reversed it? What if I explored what whites think about black folks as a kind of truth."
Pen and marker on paper - The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
This work consists of a 720-square-foot flag custom-made by the artist, one identical to the American flag except for the addition of one star (the significance of which is open to each individual spectator's interpretation). The flag was hung on a flagpole, lit from below by custom theatrical lights and constantly fluttering in the breeze caused by four industrial-grade special effects fans. It was constructed to fray at the seams and, as Pope.L put it, "open up like a flower", as it whipped in the artificial wind. The work was first shown at Grand Arts in Kansas City as part of the exhibition Animal Nationalism in 2008, shortly before the US presidential election. Trinket then appeared again in the artist's 2015 exhibition of the same name. In its first iteration, the flag was flown for twenty-four hours a day for the one-week exhibition. In its second iteration, it was taken down, folded, and stored at the end of each day.
For Pope.L, the project was "a chance for people to feel the flag." He says, "People need to feel their democracy, not just hear words about it. For me, democracy is active, not passive. With Trinket, I am showing something that's always been true. The American flag is not a toy. It's not tame. It's bright, loud, bristling and alive." Moreover, he asserts, "Like any ritual object the flag does things to us. Shapes our behavior, our reality," Other works in the Trinket exhibition were also inspired by the flag, such as Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action, which featured a grid of thousands of onions hand-painted in the colors of the American flag and allowed to sprout, grow, rot, and decay naturally over the course of the exhibition. The disintegration of both the onions and the flag symbolically question the assumed solidity and permanence of nationalism (American or otherwise). Curator Bennett Simpson writes that in the various works in the Trinket exhibition, "questions ricochet, cohere, and dissipate in the wind. What does it mean to belong to a nation? What does this feel like in one's body? Is America's history a substance to be moved through or metabolized? How does this history burden?".
Trinket and its companion piece Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action contain uncontrollable elements: the fraying of the flag in the wind, and the life cycle of the onions. This opening of his works to forces beyond his control is a central aspect within Pope.L's practice. He asserts, "I think you make an agreement with fate, and then you step out of the way. Every time I do a show that has organics or that has objects that perform of themselves, I can only predict within a certain quarter. After that, I have to let it go. It's sort of like the opinions of a person - I like the idea of pretending I'm millions of people, but alas alack, I cannot." Installing Trinket in two different time periods also revealed the way in which the work adapts easily to different socio-political contexts. In 2008, the work related clearly to the ongoing discussion of candidates' lapel pins (which Barack Obama was chastised for not wearing), whilst in 2015 the work was read through the then fierce debate around immigration.
Custom-made flag, flagpole, 15 spotlights, and 4 fans - The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles
In this work, Pope.L has taken a historical black and white photograph of a white baby in a highchair sitting at a table, with an older Black child standing at the other side of the table, leaning on it with one arm. The artist has digitally edited the image, superimposing a black and white photograph of his own head, with a wide-eyed, cheeky, surprised expression, over the table. The editing is intentionally clumsy, with the original image in sepia and the image of the artist's head in bluer tones, marking the insertion as deliberate and immediately noticeable.
This work comes from a series by Pope.L called Servants, for which he took publicly-available 19th-century photographs of Black caretakers and servants and their white masters, and digitally manipulated the images by inserting contemporary photographs of his own head. Other works in this series, such as Servant, Master, Donuts (2015), which uses a historical photograph of a black child leading a donkey upon which a white child sits, adds in small cut-outs of Pope.L's head on the ground behind the donkey, appearing from a distance like excrement. These manipulated images are intended to call attention to the absurdity of the inequality documented by the historic photographs, particularly as the Black servants depicted are children themselves. Moreover, by inserting contemporary images into these centuries-old photographs, Pope.L brings the discussion of racial inequality into the present, asking how far the societal position of Black people has shifted since the original photograph was taken.
C-print on fiber silk paper
Biography of Pope.L
William Pope.L was born in New Jersey, and grew up with three siblings and his single mother in a predominantly Black neighborhood. The family later moved to an apartment on Fifth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Pope.L's mother, who was a nurse, struggled with drug addiction and spent periods of his childhood in prison. As a result of this difficult and at times fraught relationship with his mother, Pope.L came to view himself as "separate from her", defining himself on his own terms even as an adolescent. He took his last name, Pope.L, by combining his father's last name, Pope, with the first letter of his mother's maiden name, Lancaster.
The working-class family struggled to make ends meet, though he remembers his mother's efforts to make the most of their situation. He recalls "In all the houses we ever lived in, no matter how screwed up they were, no matter how many holes in the walls, my mother always tried to make it a home. [...] she'd discovered some old architectural plans of the building and used them as wallpaper to cover the holes. I found that very 'artistic.'"
Pope.L's has described his earliest happy memories as involving language and family. He recalls how his mother would iron whilst quoting passages from authors like Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes, whilst he and his siblings sat with his aunt and uncle.
As he remembers, "Then my Aunt or my Uncle would respond, making up their own lines. And it would fly like that. Like freestyling rap it would take on a life of its own. I was really impressed. These people - their hands and hearts all beaten up [...] and they'd all had off and on run-ins with drugs and alcohol, and here they were doing this wonderful thing with language."
Throughout his youth, Pope.L often found himself in trouble with the police as a result of his habit of playing with explosives and breaking into places he wasn't supposed to be. He explains that he "thought it was exciting. I wanted to forget. [...] I wanted the tension. I wanted attention [...] In my family, I didn't feel we had much control over things. It was all crisis, and more crisis. [...] I was always afraid. By going out and constructing crime scenarios in the street, I could construct my fear. I could put it in a framework that made sense to me, and I could control it."
Pope.L's mother wanted him to go into military service, although this was not something that he was attracted to. His grandmother, who worked as a cleaner for affluent clients, had brought him at the age of eleven to the home of a portrait painter and introduced her grandson as an "aspiring artist". As his grandmother cleaned, the client sat down with Pope.L and taught him to draw, igniting a passion for art and creativity that he would continue to explore.
Education and Early Training
Pope. L attended the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City from 1973 to 1975, but dropped out as he couldn't afford to continue with his studies. He spent some time working in factories, before enrolling in Montclair State University in New Jersey, from which he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1978. He was also part of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program from 1977 to 1978. In 1981 he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Visual Arts from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
It was during his studies that Pope.L became enamored with performance and theatre, training with Fluxus artist Geoff Hendricks and experimental theatre company Mabou Mines.
It was also during his studies that he first delved into performance art and developing what would become his signature "crawl" pieces. These public performances began in 1978, with the artist crawling down the Bowery and around Times Square in New York City while wearing a suit as a commentary on the homelessness and inequality he saw around him. As awareness of these public interventions grew, he began also performing at downtown performance art venues like Franklin Furnace, where he found a sustained audience.
In 1990 Pope.L began to lecture in theater and rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he would remain as part of the faculty until 2010. During this time his students began shortening his name to simply 'Pope.L', and the artist began using this shorthand (without 'William') as a professional name in his artistic practice. During this time at Bates College he continued to make art whilst also producing and directing more explicitly theatrical work. Most notably he directed a theatre production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In the Sun, in which he cast both Black and Caucasian actors as members of the same family. This conscious casting choice echoed the subject of his artworks and demonstrated the interconnectedness of his practice across various art forms.
Pope.L cites a 1991 residency at Franklin Furnace as an important moment in his development, with the encouragement of his friend Martha Wilson and mentor Geoffrey Hendricks leading him to develop and perfect his approach to producing performance art. Pope.L made several works for the proscenium stage, such as Egg Eating Contest (1990-91) and The Aunt Jenny Chronicles (1990-91), again emphasizing the relationship between his art practice and more explicitly theatrical projects. He also continued to develop interventions on the street throughout this period, including more crawls and later works like Member a.k.a Schlong Journey (1996) and ATM Piece (1997). In these pieces he used more theatrical props and costumes, such as a large cardboard phallus, and a skirt made of dollar bills. Like the crawls, this street work drew attention to the unspoken rules of supposedly public spaces and the unique way that Pope.L's body as a Black man took up space within them.
For Pope.L, engaging with the wider public and doing what he calls "street theater" has been an important way of staying true to his roots. He explains, "I'm not used to this middle-class way of life. [...] My class status was changing. I had just gotten this job at an expensive college in Maine, and it didn't sit right with me. I would go home and be reminded that my brother or my aunt was on the street or God knows what, and felt - distant, guilty. I had to reconcile that in some way. I didn't want to lose those experiences, that connection."
In 2010 Pope.L joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. Whilst working as a lecturer he continues to produce artworks, enact his "crawls" and create other artistic interventions, installations, and performances. Much of his recent work involves larger groups of people and bodies beyond his own, allowing a concurrent increase in scale.
The Legacy of Pope.L
Pope.L is now acknowledged as a key figure in the history of performance artists who draw on their own identity as a wellspring for their practice, reflecting the close connection between the development of performance art and the recognition of identity art as a distinct practice. As his work demonstrates, participatory art projects and feats of endurance in performance can be used to generate wide-reaching conversations about racial inequality and Black masculinity, using his body as a locus for experiencing, inviting, learning about, and generating dialogue. This might be enacted in different ways, whether by crawling through city streets on his hands and knees in his crawls (1978-ongoing), or by actions like burying himself up to his neck in the earth in Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece (1996), but each action is dense in symbolism and personal resonance, as is now being increasingly written about by scholars and critics.
Art historian Joanna Fiduccia sees Pope.L's crawls as works comparable to those of artists like VALIE EXPORT, Adrian Piper, and James Luna, in that he "challenges the invisibility enforced on him in public space by redoubling his difference through actions considered improper or gauche". The increasing recognition for Pope.L and these other artists' public interventions and performative actions exemplify the way that the art world (and particularly museums) are devoting increasing time and resources to recognizing performance as an important practice and history. Whilst this results in increasing recognition, fame and financial support for artists like Pope.L who have struggled to gain it in the past, the practical imperative to display artefacts and objects related to these performances tends to place the institutional emphasis on documentation of performance rather than the live experience of attending or witnessing. Pope.L has, like many other performance artists, expressed discomfort with the way that legacies are achieved and sustained through this "looking-back" at historical works, rather than focusing on the immediacy of new experiences and interactions.
As Pope.L's work interrogates difficult questions about the meaning of "Blackness" in America, most obviously in conversation works like The Black Factory (2003-ongoing), he is increasingly cited as an influence and peer to a number of currently practicing Black artists who use performance, installation, identity, and language-based art to explore issues of racism in the public sphere. This is particularly true for those whose work engages with the complex symbols and connotations of contemporary blackness. These artists include Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O'Grady, Dave McKenzie, Jean-Ulrick Désert, and Lyle Ashton Harris. As Artist and critic Aria Dean argues, "Pope.L's relationship to blackness - or, dare we say, his use of blackness, whether his own or that of others - departs from the precedents set by the Black Arts movement of the early 1970s, glimmering with rhetoric of empowerment and pride. For Pope.L, affirmation is always couched in negation." This negation prefigures many of recent works of these artists that deal with the legacies of racism in America, and reflects a post-Black Lives Matter understanding of the burden this legacy places on people of color.
Pope.L also inspires students and young artists across the country as a teacher and lecturer, with many of them deploying similar strategies to produce trans-disciplinary works that explore social issues that matter to them, including trauma and marginalization. In 2011, for example, Canadian artist Didier Morelli enacted Five Dollar Crawl After William Pope L., "(re)performing" a Pope.L crawl in the streets of Toronto while wearing a Québec Nordiques hockey jersey and carrying a photograph of Pope.L, in order to "make[...] evident the intrinsic relationship between affect and pedagogy."
In 2019, Pope.L was the subject of a major exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), member: Pope.L 1978-2001, staged alongside two other exhibitions of his work in New York during the same period. Together they formed the city-wide retrospective Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration. Conceived and organized by theatre and performance curators at MoMA, these three complimentary exhibitions presented an overview of his key works, a new installation Choir at the Whitney Museum as part of his 2017 Bucksbaum Award and a new crawl organized by the Public Art Fund, Conquest. This crawl featured a group of 140 volunteers chosen to reflect the cultural diversity of New York crawling across the streets and public parks of downtown Manhattan. The breadth and scale of this retrospective event reflects Pope.L's increasing recognition as a major figure in the development of performance art as a form and the "provocative questions about a culture consumed with success yet riven by social, racial, and economic conflict" that his practice still raises.