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In 1979 Howardena Pindell had yet to turn 37, but she was already accomplished. She was a cofounder of pioneering feminist gallery A.I.R., and was one of the first black curators at the Museum of Modern Art. And all of this while cultivating her signature painting style—abstract canvases with colorful paper circles affixed to neutral backgrounds, or occasionally covering 3-D structures, like confetti sprinkled over a city sidewalk.

But it was that same year that a car accident interrupted her career. She had recently left her job at MoMA to teach in the art department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. One morning, she and a colleague were being driven to work by art historian Donald Kuspit, who also taught at the college. A near-fatal crash left Pindell with a concussion. In the days and weeks that followed, she had trouble remembering people from her distant past and barely recognized the voices of her loved ones. But, Pindell told me this past summer, “I decided I was not going to stop working—I was going to work, whether I was uncomfortable or not. I started to do works that were autobiographical. My feeling was, I could be dead tomorrow.”

Eight months after the accident, Pindell made a 12-minute video called Free, White and 21 (1980). She stars in it as two characters—herself and, wearing a mask, a white woman. In the shots where she plays herself, she recounts her experiences of racism—the time, for example, that she applied for a job as a picture researcher at Time Life, but was rebuffed, along with all other nonwhite applicants. “You really must be paranoid,” Pindell, playing the white woman, says. “I have never had experiences like that. But, of course, I am free, white, and 21.”

This coming February, Free, White and 21, along with five decades of Pindell’s paintings, collages, writings, drawings, and videos, will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of her first major traveling museum retrospective, What Remains to be Seen. Pindell’s work, which will be shown alongside documentation of her activist projects, has always been about the connection between identity and art making, and the show will certainly explore that. But the more challenging mandate for MCA curator Naomi Beckwith is to fully illuminate the career of an artist whose service on the front lines of so many battlefields, from abstract painting to activist protests, is finally moving into the spotlight.

“When you have a show of this scale, you have a continuation of a line of inquiry,” Beckwith said. “Howardena has these offshoots that, in many ways, I think historians have had a hard time encapsulating into a story.” Valerie Cassel Oliver, a curator at the Viriginia Museum of Fine Arts who worked on the show with Beckwith, added, “She’s somewhat elusive. People really don’t know what to do with the work.”

Those who have known Pindell for many years are quick to point out her dry wit, which she retains at age 74. “I should’ve retired,” she told me, joking that she’s too old still to be teaching at Stony Brook. We were in the back room of her gallery, Garth Greenan in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York, where she prefers to take meetings. She was perched on a low couch near one of her large abstract paintings from the ‘70s, its crisscrossing circular patterns clashing with her paisley shirt. “My résumé is over 100 pages long, and I need to update it,” she said. “Sometimes, that makes me feel good.” She chuckled and added that she wouldn’t make the same mistake as many of the artists who came out of the women’s movement in the ‘70s: she’d never become too prideful, too egotistical. She’d just keep working.

On the days when she’s not teaching, she spends time in her studio in the Inwood neighborhood of New York, which features, among the expected paints and brushes, an arsenal of hole punches purchased at craft stores. They come in various sizes—“maybe one inch wide, two inches wide, teeny tiny, whatever—there’s a bigger variety,” she said. “My best hole punches, I paid $250 [for them], and they’re fabulous. They’re really clean and very fast. Now, you have hole punchers that are like tiny pizzas.” To make her abstract paintings, she meticulously attaches tiny hole-punched circles of paper to unstretched canvas, sometimes caking the circles together using globs of paint.

The beauty of these works feels effortless, but it took Pindell more than two decades to arrive at total abstraction. She can date her interest in art back to the third grade, when a teacher at her school in Philadelphia in the early 1950s told her parents that their daughter was a budding artist and that they should be taking her to museums and studios. They quickly got to work. “My parents are very multicultural in terms of their interests, so I met not only white artists and black artists, but also women artists,” Pindell said. “When I entered the art world in New York, it was a big shock for me that it was so segregated.”

After trying art classes at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial while attending an all-girls high school, she went for a B.F.A. at Boston University, where, she said, “they were very, very pro figuration. I was trained as an academic painter.” Her earliest works drew on Thomas Eakins. At Yale University, where she got her M.F.A., the pedagogy was different. Al Held had been on staff, and Pindell recalls a host of visiting artists, among them the Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler, taking a look at her work. With abstraction no longer stigmatized by her teachers, she began to shift away from figuration.

In her video Free, White and 21, Pindell says that after she graduated, in 1967, she applied to 50 teaching positions and received 50 rejections. She came to New York in search of virtually any job she could find, and happened upon a vibrant art scene. Painters like Louise Fishman, Al Loving, and Jack Whitten were revising Abstract Expressionist techniques to place a greater emphasis on process. Paint was being pulled and dragged across, flecked onto, and smeared around canvases.

As Pindell ventured further into abstraction, one shape remained constant: the circle. She often refers to a memory from the 1950s, when she and her father were driving through Kentucky, and she spotted a root-beer stand where every mug had a red circle on its bottom. “I asked my father, ‘What is this red circle?’” she recalled in a 2014 interview with this magazine. “He said, ‘That’s because we’re black and we cannot use the same utensils as the whites.’ I realized that’s really the origin of my being driven to try to change the circle in my mind, trying to take the sting out of that.”

When she discovered she was allergic to oil paint, Pindell turned to a combination of acrylic and spray paint. (“I’d mainly used lead white [paint] in school,” she said. “They never told us it was poison.”) Her first entirely abstract canvases involved layering Mylar-plastic templates, each with holes punched into them, on top of one another and painting over them repeatedly. “I took my template, and I would just, at random, layer and layer, spread and layer, spread and layer,” she told me. The paintings, which resemble overlapping doilies or abstract riffs on Georges Seurat’s Pointillist style, took three to four months to produce, but she nevertheless insists that her process was “very, very easy.” For Pindell, a finished abstract canvas was unstretched, unprimed, and imperfect, and typically exhibited nailed to a wall.

In her next series, the hole-punch took on a larger role. She affixed its tiny circles to her canvases by hand, one by one. Some she inscribed with numbers, as though they were part of a complex equation (she attributes her interest in numbers to her father, who was a mathematician); others she sprayed with perfume, to heighten their sensuality. “It’s an active process of, how difficult can I make this for myself?” Garth Greenan said. Pindell scoffed, insisting again that “it was very, very easy.”

The challenge was finding a gallery that would show her work. In the ‘70s, many galleries still represented only white men, and many feminists still advocated only on behalf of white women. (As a rejoinder to that aspect of the movement, Alice Walker later created her own term, “womanism.”) Pindell connected with a network of black women artists seeking to stake a claim for themselves in the New York scene. They created space of their own, like Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown gallery, on 57th Street, which advertised itself in Artforum as “an alternative approach to viewing.” In the words of Catherine Morris, one of the curators of the Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, the group had one universal understanding: “The artists’ responsibility for their legacies lay with the artists themselves.”

As an artist, Pindell was forced to work outside the system, even as, at her day job, she worked within it. She started at the Museum of Modern Art as a curatorial assistant in 1967, after all those teaching job rejections, and ascended the ranks to associate curator in the Prints and Illustrated Books department. “The women’s movement—basically, the white women—picketed,” she recalled of a staff protest against exclusionary employment policies. “They called my office and said, ‘You have to come down.’ I said, ‘Listen, no. I will get fired! You have a husband who supports you. I don’t, so I’m the one who pays the bills.’ So they were a little annoyed at that.”

Pindell left MoMA in 1979, the same year the SoHo gallery Artists Space put on an exhibition of work by Donald Newman, a white artist, called The Nigger Drawings, so named—according to the show’s press release—for his “intense involvement” with charcoal. “That’s when I started pulling away from the museum world,” she said. She wrote a pointed letter to Artists Space, adding her voice to those of many others, and she joined a protest there with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. “We were considered [to be] censoring the show by criticizing it,” she said. “We were a multiracial group picketing them, and they called the police…There was a friend of the director—a white woman artist—and she said, ‘Who do you think you are, coming down here and telling us what to do? This is a white neighborhood.’”

More protests, more letters, and town halls followed, as did an open letter supporting the show on the grounds of freedom of expression that was signed by curator and scholar Douglas Crimp, critic Roberta Smith, and others. The exhibition remained on view. A day after the show closed, Artists Space wrote an apology to Pindell, saying that the institution didn’t know the gesture would be considered racist. Four days later, Pindell excoriated Artsits Space director Helene Winer via another missive that concluded, “I thought that Artists Space’s goal was to be a viable, dynamic, alternative space, not a private club.”

In her work, meanwhile, Pindell was moving away from painting. In 1976 she’d debuted her Video Drawings in Rooms, the inaugural show at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. The works featured photographs of TV screens playing sports events, with arrows and numbers drawn over them. “People didn’t know what to think about them,” she said, adding that what appealed to her most about the images she chose—football players tackling each other, divers leaping into pools—was the sense of motion. “People have told me that it reminds them of dance moves, Labanotation [a system for recording movement], and, in football, lines of scrimmage.”

In the ‘80s, after her car accident, Pindell’s work became more overtly political. She started making paintings that dealt with hidden histories, both those related to her own life and the lives of others, through a blend of figuration and abstraction. She had been interested in history since she was a child—her mother had a college degree in the subject. “She and my father were both avid readers, but when I was growing up, there were no books about African-American history,” she said of these pieces, which feature texts that allude to various subjects, from the ritual killing of wives in traditional Indian cultures to the 19th-century slave trade. “I’m interested in the history of just about everything! I wanted to share that knowledge through my work.”

For Autobiography: Air (CS560) (1988), the title is a reference to the tear gas American troops used on Vietcong soldiers, Pindell lay down on a rigid canvas and made several tracings of her body’s outline. She placed text thereon reading “HOW DARE YOU QUESTION” and “BURIED ALIVE” among other phrases. Looking back on the piece, she thinks that the death of artist Ana Mendieta in 1985, may have had something to do with the silhouettes. Pindell is among those who believe Mendieta was murdered by her husband, artist Carl Andre. “It reminded me of when she was pushed out of the window, of the line that would be drawn around the body where it fell,” she said. “It was like I was doing the same thing to myself, like I was seeing my body in the way it would have been seen in the case of homicide.”

Pindell continued to her activist work, too. In 1987, at a conference at Hunter College in New York, she presented a research project she called “Art (World) & Racism: Testimony, Documentation and Statistics.” She’d called galleries and found that many—including Leo Castelli and Pace/MacGill—had entirely white artist rosters. She also surveyed museums’ programming and discovered in the process that MoMA, her former employer, hadn’t had any shows of artists of color in 1980, 1983, 1985, or 1987.

In her most recent work, Pindell continues to mine history’s harshest periods. Her installation Canals/Underground Railroad, which Greenan exhibited in his back room earlier this year, deals with the use of New York canals as ways for abolitionists to transport and house slaves during the 18th century; it includes a set of 18th-century shackles used on enslaved children.

Recalling her brief stint in Japan, from 1981 to 1982, as a Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Creative Artist Fellow, Pindell has begun incorporating rice paper into her works. With a 12th-century scroll known as the Heike Nōkyō in mind, she began hole-punching the rice paper and densely layering the circles, to “create the dimension of depth that almost feels as if it’s underwater,” she said. “I’m fooling around with this idea of creating a different kind of depth and dimension.”

Throughout her career, Pindell has written. There are numerous letters—a curator told me that Pindell would sometimes write anonymous letters to institutions and sign them “The Black Hornet”—but she has also penned smart, straightforward criticism and essays. Her essay “An American Black Woman Artist in a Japanese Garden” was first published in a 1982 issue of the feminist journal Heresies called “Racism Is the Issue.” There, she describes the racism, sexism, and xenophobia she experienced in Japan. “I stumbled constantly over taboos and codes of behavior deeply embedded in a rigidly hierarchical society,” she writes. “Rich was superior to poor, old superior to young, men superior to women, with few questions asked in passive obedience to the demands of conformity.” When she screened Free, White and 21 in Tokyo, “the remarks were always accompanied by laughter at how Jewish I looked in whiteface.” Her time in Japan gave her a new appreciation for New York. “What draws me home,” she writes, “was the relative freedom to protest and to work toward positive alternatives, a freedom I have rarely witnessed elsewhere.”

In 1997 Midmarch Arts Press published The Heart of the Question: The Writings and Paintings of Howardena Pindell, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims, who was then a contemporary-art curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who is still a close friend of Pindell’s. The book includes Pindell’s meditations on NEA funding and on her and Sims’s travels in Africa during the ‘70s. With money from MoMA’s International Council, they went to Ghana, Kenya, and the Ivory Coast. “We were two women traveling together, which, in the ‘70s, was weird,” Sims told me, “There were moments where we really had to suss out and deal with attitudes toward the gender…We were women without a tribe, to some extent.” 

“It was intense,” Pindell said. They accompanied a New York Times photographer to a Kenyan game reserve where lions and tigers prowled in the tall grass. Their Volkswagen stalled, and while they waited for the car to be fixed, Pindell took in her surroundings. “There was this big fall of land, and then there was a plain that went on as far as you could see,” she said. “It was so beautiful.”

“Considering [her writings] as a collection,” Sims writes in her introduction to The Heart of the Question, “I was struck by the consistency of their message: Pindell’s abiding concern that she and others like her—blacks, women, artists—find and express their voice, their presence, and command respect in the world arena.”

In 2009 Pindell assembled the volume Kara Walker–no/Kara Walker–yes/Kara Walker–?, a provocative argument against Walker’s paintings—many of which meditate on histories of racism and sexism, often using graphically violent and sexual imagery—that includes an essay by Pindell, as well as contributions from 27 artists, scholars, and writers. It was born out of a dialogue she had had with the artist Betye Saar. In her introduction, she describes a “well-known African-American artist” telling her to quit discussing Walker’s work, which often features racist stereotypes. “I wrote back that he couldn’t silence me,” she continues, “that I had a right to express my opinion.”

Writing had always been essential for Pindell, Rujeko Hockley, a Whitney Museum assistant curator who organized We Wanted a Revolution. Told me, because it was part of archiving her own history. “I think the archival impulse, the keeping of her own records, the keeping of her own archives, as well as writing and producing text to be either part of her own archives or to be out in the world—it’s really kind of strategic in some ways,” Hockley said.

Those records bolstered the recent resurgence of interest in Pindell’s work. She kept a meticulous account of her career, whether or not the art world happened to be paying much mind to it, and when opportunity knocked, she was ready. Greenan met her several years ago at an opening for Al Loving, the hard-edge abstractionist whose estate he also represents. “The Loving Estate said, ‘Oh, you should call Howardena,’” Greenan told me. “And I said, ‘Really, I can just call her?’ I just called her and it was”—he snapped his fingers—“history.” Her influence, he said, is expansive—artists as varied as Marilyn Minter, Lorna Simpson, Rashid Johnson, and Amy Sillman are among her admirers.

These days, Pindell has been exploring a different aspect of her history. During our conversation, she shared with me her fascination with DNA tests. She’s a big fan of the one National Geographic now offers for a fee. “My mother’s first DNA was from 80,000 years ago in Uganda,” she said of the test results. “Now, I wish I could find my father’s, but I can’t, because he’s gone, and I’ve gotten rid of the hairbrush, the toothbrush. I tried it with a licked envelope but they said we couldn’t get enough DNA from it.”

She has “two markers for Sephardic, two markers for New Delhi, India, I believe [also for] Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Sulu, Bantu, Europe, and Nigeria. And then Benin, Scandinavia, Germany, Eastern Europe…Oh, Inuit! Eskimo. I’m really excited about that.” A new test, she said, will help her figure out whether she has any Neanderthal ancestors. She asked about my ancestry, and I told her my family’s records, on both my parents’ sides, had been lost during World War II, when the Nazis burned sheaves of documents as they raided Jewish ghettos. She urged me to do the test. “You’d be surprised,” she said. “It’s not about records. It’s about chemistry.”

I asked her what it’s like to finally get widespread recognition. “People say to me, ‘You know you’re famous,’” she said, “but I do not feel like that at all. I always tell people I feel like a message in a bottle that washes up on shore. Maybe someone might find out something about me.”

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