Staying Hungry

Pope.L ’78

Artist Pope.L tackles ‘Hunger, loss and ignorance abetted by language, grime, and the spirit of the tinkerer a la social justice’

Pope.L, formerly known as William Pope.L, has recently had quite the New York Moment, with exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Public Art Fund. (Photo © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.)

Pope.L ’78, Whitney Biennial artist (2002) and Guggenheim Fellow (2004), was recently the subject of a trio of complementary New York City exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Public Art Fund. Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration included representations of Pope.L’s famous and grueling “crawls” – in which he drags himself around public places like Tompkins Square Park or the length of Broadway – and installations such as Choir, which takes on the Flint water crisis. Pope.L is a theater director, writer, painter, performer, humorist and, according to MoMA, a self-described “fisherman of social absurdity.” The New York Times calls his work “art-smart, streetwise,” mixing issues of “art, the body, language and race into thorny, mind-bending tangles.” Recently, Pope.L engaged in a Q & A with Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann. His answers may make you smile, wince – and think.

Montclair magazine: With three exhibitions Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration, put on by MOMA, the Whitney and the Public Art Fund last fall, that’s quite a trifecta for an artist. What was that like for you?

Pope.L: Working with one high profile art institution can be a test. Working with three, well – it was dandy.

MM: You’ve been a Guggenheim fellow, had other retrospectives, received grants and had much success. What has been the most satisfying aspect of your career?

Pope.L: I’m not sure that careers can be satisfying, at least not in art. In many ways, careers make you emptier. Maybe that in itself is a form of satisfaction? I’m not sure.

MM: What would you say are the biggest themes that run through your work?

Pope.L: Hunger, loss and ignorance abetted by language, grime, and the spirit of the tinkerer a la social justice.

MM: You are probably most famous for your crawls, some of which are particularly grueling. Which one stays with you the most and why?

Pope.L: Famous? Hmmm. I did a memorable crawl once across the cobblestones of the Charles Bridge in Prague. As I crawled, this Australian lady followed me, yelling at me at the top of her lungs, demanding to know why I was crawling.

Pope L. photograph art exhibit
How Much is that Nigger in the Window a.k.a. Tompkins Square Crawl, New York. 1991. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. “No matter where I did crawls of that nature, I had people yelling at me and spitting on me. They seemed to always do this thing. You see a person – a black person in the street with a suit – it seemed to set black people off especially. I think it’s a very hurtful sign to see that I had given up. Or that I was showing this, this weakness.”

MM: The topics you tackle are deadly serious. Yet there is almost always some wry humor, a wink. You seem to be inviting the world in, not shutting people out. In a scene where art sometimes seems exclusive and exclusionary, what can you tell us about inclusivity? (You might guess: We’re big on inclusivity here at Montclair State.)

Pope.L: Well, I am glad Montclair is big on inclusivity. When I attended it did not feel this way – there [were] only two black students in the art department and there [was] very little visible mixing on campus.

MM: Your work is thought provoking. What do you hope audiences take away from it?

Pope.L: I’ll reply in terms of quantity: I hope they take as much as they can carry. I hope they are thieves and criminals about it.

Pope L. photograph art exhibit
The Great White Way: 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, 2000-2009. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Pope.L crawled the entire length of Broadway in New York wearing a Superman suit. He told MoMA that his aunt introduced him to Superman when he was young, and it dawned on him that the super suit was the next step after crawling in a business suit. People will “talk to you differently when they’re standing up over the top of you. They think they’re like instant superiority. Except in this case, I have the super suit.”

MM: You graduated Montclair State University in 1978, the same year as Times Square Crawl. You’d already studied at Pratt and at the Whitney and were headed for Mason Gross. How did Montclair State work into that brew that generated Times Square Crawl and your early work?

Pope.L: I was very lucky. The art department had great teachers: John Czerkowicz, Mac Adams, Leon De Leeuw, Peter Barnet, Ellen Mohammed, John Randolph Carter and Phillip Winters.

MM: What attracted you to Montclair State?

Pope.L: I had a friend who was already matriculating. He suggested I come here. He never graduated. Sometimes I miss him. We don’t speak much now.

Pope L. photograph art exhibit
Choir, 2019, © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. This installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, expands on Pope.L’s “ongoing exploration and use of water.” According to Pope.L, “Water expresses gravity like no other material, it takes the shape of the container … it goes where it’s needed.” However, in cases such as the drinking fountains in the Jim Crow South, “with man’s intervention, I guess it does not.”

MM: Your work bleeds across genres – painting, performance, photography, film. Montclair State College of the Arts has grown considerably since your days here, particularly in theater, film, dance and musical arts. What message for art students and other aspiring artists today do you have?

Pope.L: Don’t quit your day job. This is especially important after you get a tiny bit of success – if you have to quit then keep your day-job attitude. Stay hungry. And make sure that fame is only ever an appetizer.

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