William Pope.L has trademarked the phrase, “The Friendliest Black Artist in AmericaTM.” As an artist he is mainly concerned with making works that question ideas about race. He has been influenced by Robert Ryman’s work1. When Pope.L first engaged with Ryman’s work in a New York Gallery, he accepted what he had been taught; the work was “extreme abstract minimalist expression” (Bessire 25). Although Pope.L is Black he did not see the works as an expression of the ideology of Whiteness. However, over time Pope.L became more critical, thinking initially that Ryman “must think he’s some kind of super-hero who only eats white food and helps white people by only making white culture” (25). Ryman’s work became a catalyst for Pope.L’s creative practice. He states, “Ryman’s got a lot of balls, throwing this much white around. Who the fuck does he think he is” (25). Pope.L noted that even if Ryman had not intended his work to be largely about Whiteness, that the works do work to expose the problems with Whiteness (25). Curator Mark Bessire calls Pope.L’s work an “astute interpretation of the patriarchal and racial (White) authority that underpins the audacity of Ryman’s2 white monochrome paintings” (39). In Pope.L’s responsive practice the exploration of race and Whiteness takes form in flour, spoiled milk, and disintegrating mayonnaise.
In White Baby (1992), Pope.L, as part of the Cleveland Performance Arts Festival, entered a performance space with a pink coloured doll dragging behind him and said, “I am being chased down the street by a little white baby with no clothes on. It is nice baby. A little white baby. I do not like it; yet I am tied to it. Now I want to hide from the little baby. Instead I pull it along the neighborhood like a little doggie” (23). I suggest, that in a way this work illustrates Ahmed’s concept of Whiteness trailing behind a particular body, except that in this case Pope.L is Black. However, where Whites are generally not aware of this Whiteness trailing behind them, Pope.L makes it clear that he is very aware of it. More importantly, the doll in White Baby acts as the subject whose Whiteness extends out into the spaces that it inhabits. Hence, Pope.L’s observation that he cannot hide from the doll, but that he has to “pull it along like a little doggie” (23). The doll creates a point of pressure and restricts what Pope.L’s body can do (Ahmed 161).
In a sudden turn during the performance Pope.L disrupts the whole scene by throwing the doll, which was still tied around the neck, so that it was hanging and swinging from a pipe that was attached to the ceiling, clearly referencing lynchings of Blacks in the United States.
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1. Robert Ryman (b. 1930) is a White painter who lives and works in New York. He is known mainly for his white monochromatic paintings.
2. As a point of personal observation Robert Ryman in a segment titled Paradox in Art 21 Season 4 reified Whiteness by not having much to say about his work.
See Paradox. Dir. Charles Atlas. Prod. Susan Sollins. Perf. Robert Ryman. Art 21 Series: Season 4 (2007). PBS, 18 Nov. 2007. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.
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Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8.2 (2007): 149-68. Print.
Besire, Mark H.C. William Pope.L, The Friendliest Black Artist in America. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
Paradox. Dir. Charles Atlas. Prod. Susan Sollins. Perf. Robert Ryman. Art 21 Series: Season 4 (2007). PBS, 18 Nov. 2007. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.