New Kemper Museum Show Blurs Boundaries — In Multiple Ways

Adam Pendleton's To Divide By plays with how abstraction helps us understand ourselves and others

click to enlarge Artist Adam Pendleton explores what it means for art to be abstract.
Matthew Placek
Artist Adam Pendleton explores what it means for art to be abstract.
Artist Adam Pendleton’s preferred hues may be black and white, but the message of his artwork, now on display at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (1 Brookings Drive, 314-935-4523,, is anything but.

To Divide By, which opened late last month, showcases the past five years of Pendleton’s artistic practice. In the exhibition, which encompasses all four of the Kemper’s special exhibition spaces, the internationally renowned, Brooklyn-based visual artist explores what it means for art to be abstract.

“I think one of the things I'm predominantly interested in is a theory of abstraction as it relates to painting and drawing but also as it relates to the individual and also as it relates to the collective and how we understand ourselves and who and what we are,” says Pendleton, 39.

According to Meredith Malone, curator of To Divide By, talks of a major solo exhibition of Pendleton’s oeuvre began around three years ago. Since then, the show has evolved to spotlight Pendleton’s focus on abstraction.

click to enlarge Adam Pendleton’s works feature geometric forms offset by stray marks, a splatter here or a streak there.
Andy Romer Photography
Adam Pendleton’s works feature geometric forms offset by stray marks, a splatter here or a streak there.

One standout feature of his work is the predominance of geometric forms. At every turn, you encounter circles, squares, triangles and straight lines. Painted on the wall of one gallery, a massive black triangle draws the patterns out of the artwork and into the physical space, reflecting Pendleton’s conceptualization of the exhibition as a form “in and of itself,” Malone notes.

The precision in the geometric patterns are often offset by stray marks — a splatter of paint here, a streak of spray paint there. The work is riddled with language where one would least expect it — a lone “D” in plain type on one painting, the all-caps statement “WE ARE NOT” blanketing the surface of another. They’re painted on everything from a 20-foot-tall canvas to square mirrors no larger than the face of the viewer reflected in them.

“We kind of run through a whole selection of Adam’s practice,” Malone says. “What makes the show unique is the concerted emphasis on abstract composition across all these diverse bodies of work.”

To Divide By features works in multiple mediums, including paintings, drawings, poetry and two film portraits, What is Your Name? Kyle Abraham, A Portrait and Ruby Nell Sales. Pendleton enlists an array of materials, from paper and mylar to ceramics and mirrors.

“I think the distinctions between mediums are artificial,” Pendleton explains. “It’s more about, ‘What does the idea need to make itself present, or to manifest?’” He is interested in the way diverse mediums can represent “the same ideas differently.”

click to enlarge A large black triangle on the wall takes the art out of the frame.
Andy Romer Photography
A large black triangle on the wall takes the art out of the frame.

“An underlying interest of mine as an artist is what happens if you take a similar concept or, or idea, and manifest it in a different mode,” he says.

The exhibition’s name is taken from Pendleton’s 2019 poem “divide by,” a reading of which is featured in the What is Your Name? film portrait. According to Malone, the title highlights the “multi-directional” nature of the concepts at the heart of the exhibition.

“You can think of “to divide by” as having negative connotations, ideas about separation and partition, but [it’s also about] multiplicity, at the same time,” Malone says.

In this sense, the title is also a reflection of Pendleton’s process, through which separate components often meld to create a cohesive, yet evocatively discordant, result.

“From the beginning, I'm thinking of these paintings as different layers that are kind of pulled apart only to be brought together in the final manifestation of the work,” Pendleton says.

For example, to create his Untitled (WE ARE NOT) paintings, Pendleton first spray paints the titular statement “We Are Not” on sheets of paper, then takes high-resolution photographs of those paintings and fits them to be screen-printed on large canvases primed with black gesso.

click to enlarge Pendleton incorporates language into the otherwise abstract images he creates.
Andy Romer Photography
Pendleton incorporates language into the otherwise abstract images he creates.

In this way, the series blurs painting, drawing and photography. “All of those modes and methods of making, of making a mark, of making a gesture, are utilized in the making of these works,” he says.

Pendelton uses a similar process to create his Untitled (Days) paintings, integrating remnants of painted paper that hang in his studio and photographing the resulting collection of stenciled shapes and fragments of spray-painted text. As with Untitled (WE ARE NOT), Pendleton then screen prints the photographs, creating a final work that is simultaneously flat and bursting with dimension.

“These marks were drips, splatters and sprays, predominantly, and I started to think through how can I compose them, so to speak, how can I orchestrate things in a visual manner that speaks more broadly to a conceptual understanding of painting?” Pendleton says. “That's really what, for me, the studio space is about. It's a place of discovery and curiosity, and pushing things visually, materially, conceptually, theoretically, to see where things might land.”

The Kemper has scheduled several programming events for To Divide By throughout the fall, including a Wednesday, November 8, performance from choreographer Kyle Abraham, the subject of one of Pendleton’s featured film portraits. The exhibition will run through January 15, 2024.

The Kemper Art Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and on Wednesday through Sunday. For more information on To Divide By, visit

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About The Author

Kasey Noss

Kasey Noss is a former editorial intern at the Riverfront Times. She attends Washington University in St. Louis and is majoring in English with a double-minor in Political Science and Italian.
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