DOTS, DOTS, and more dots: Punched-out paper circles accumulate in dense, nearly geologic thickets, or scatter into coruscating, anti-optical arrays on the surfaces of Howardena Pindell’s paintings. With these signature dots, the New York–based artist flouts the stringent orthodoxies of vanguard painting that dominated art schools when she was a student at Yale University in the late 1960s, opting instead for an unapologetically unconventional mode that also includes glam sprays of glitter, exuberant color, and labyrinthine passages of stitching. Abstraction, for Pindell, is a mode of contemplation, but it is also a cri de coeur, a heartfelt yearning for cohesion or resolution that is constantly thwarted or denied.
Pindell’s works also carry penetrating engagements with politics and history. Take, for example, her monumental painting and installation Hunger: The Color of Bones, 2014, in which emaciated and wraithlike figures appear alongside words such as SOMALIA, GENOCIDE, and FORCED FAMINES, or her now-iconic video Free, White and 21, 1980, in which she appears in whiteface to convey the soft, often invisible racisms confronting black women. Yet the works most closely associated with the artist are those colorful, glittery abstractions, which, with their flamboyant, eye-popping palette and formal audacity, have long warranted a backward glance.
THIS IS THE FIRST major retrospective of my work in nearly thirty years. I am infinitely grateful that I have survived exclusion, and yet I’m aware of many artists of color, queer artists, and/or women artists of my generation who did really good work that you just don’t hear about anymore. This is a consequence of the art world’s systemic racism, for which we have seen a slight course correction in the past four or five years. Finally, some excluded artists—like me—are being shown again.
As the show’s title, “What Remains to Be Seen,” suggests, I like challenging people to figure out what’s painted and what isn’t. When I was a child of eight or nine, my parents often took me on trips in the car. Once, when we drove through northern Kentucky, we stopped at a restaurant where they served us mugs of root beer with red circles on the bottoms. These circles marked the silverware and glassware reserved for nonwhites. My fascination with the circle comes from that day. Abstraction is like that: It doesn’t have a concrete meaning, but can relate back to signification in the world, like that experience of turning over the cup and seeing the circle, of being marked.
My use of color goes back to Josef Albers. I took his color course when I was at Yale in the late ’60s. He had left by then, but his protégé Sewell “Si” Sillman taught it in the same way he did. He taught us how to make colors vibrate by putting complementary colors together and keeping them on the same value scale. Color matters in terms of quantity, but more often in terms of context: Orange surrounded by blue is a different thing from orange by itself. Also in graduate school I remember that a woman artist would be criticized if she used pink. If a man used pink, it was considered a mixture of red and white. So the language of critique changed depending on the gender of the artist. When I noticed this, I started using the things that I was told not to use. Glitter. Pink. This was my way of resisting.
I was an early member of feminist organizations such as A.I.R. Gallery in New York. Some have identified themes of women’s craft and women’s work in my paintings, but my art was never about this. My paintings are explorations in process. My activism began because I got irritated at certain things that I was seeing in the art world. I served on committees for the New York State Council on the Arts and would see how funds were allocated to institutions. Because I was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I needed to remain anonymous, so I would just send little notes of complaint to magazines, to museum boards, and to the city signed “The Black Hornet.” I have never told anyone about these and I had almost forgotten that period. I was frustrated because I was so voiceless. Even the expectations within the African American community were conservative. There was anger at black artists such as myself—at William T. Williams and Al Loving, too—for working with abstraction.
WHEN I START a painting, I sit down. I take the dots from bags. They come from etchings of mine, and even former drawings—I have punched thousands of dots over the years. I attach the dots to the painting’s surface, coat them in a heavy-duty gel medium, and add layers of color to make it airtight. I want the shape of the dot to be distinctive, yet I also like them to get lost against the ground. Only in the past year did I hire an assistant to help with the busywork, though I still do all the sewing myself, with a strong nautical thread.
The canvases are irregular. When I lived in Japan between 1981 and 1982, I left the rectangle completely and began using an oval, making everything asymmetrical. In Japan, my work also went through a major color shift. I was struck by the use of color in Kabuki; it is unbelievable. I remember a Kabuki character who had a lime-colored silk garment, and when he opened it, there was lavender underneath. I had never seen color like that. At the MCA show, you can really see when I started using vibrant, saturated color. Before then, as you see in Untitled #4 , my use of color was often muted.
Traveling really informs my work: I’ve been to Brazil, France, sub-Saharan Africa, and India. Abstraction has always been a means by which to contemplate not only form but also place. Right now, I’m working on three pieces on Brazilian Carnival. I was inspired by a documentary about a transgender woman who makes costumes for Carnival on the Cape Verdean island São Vicente. I liked their liveliness and the beauty of what they were doing. The floats were gorgeous. My newest body of work deals with color and with surface in a different way.
So much of my career has been defined by privation. A recent painting and installation that will be on view at the MCA is Hunger: The Color of Bones. It took between three and five years to make. It came from a physically real place: Before my father died, he didn’t have much money, so I was responsible for his care. Twenty-four-hour care would have cost me $179,000, and I didn’t have that kind of money. So I hired a part-time caregiver and then I paid for my father’s funeral and the dispersal of his possessions. Even after having an illustrious career, here I was, broke and budgeting something outrageous like twenty dollars a week for food. I experienced this intense hunger. And this was only six or seven years ago. Then I started thinking about worldwide hunger, and I felt this empathy for people all over the world.
SO, SO MUCH of my work now comes from the sheer joy that I am able to do it. In Nautilus #1 [2014–15] and Night Flight [2015–16], the flagrant color— yellows and mango oranges in the former and blues and lime greens in the latter—gives you the energy of the crowd, the combination of sound, light, music. I want it all there. In my early paintings, I restrained myself with formal challenges; I wouldn’t disclose the ideas that I was working from. Now, my paintings are my color, what I see in color, and what I hope to do with color.
Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen, curated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, is on view February 24–May 20; travels to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, August 25–November 25; Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, January 24– June 16, 2019.