In the catalogue for Autobiography, her first solo exhibition since her 2018 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Howardena Pindell tells the story of how, in 1979, a car accident on Long Island left her with a long-term concussion that impaired her memory. She turned to painting as a means of recovery, incorporating more of her personal experiences into her professional practice in order to close the gaps in her recollection. (Though not included in the present show, Pindell’s video Free, White and 21, 1980, sprang from the same impulse.) To inaugurate what came to be called her Autobiography series, 1980–2005, the artist sliced up postcards and interspersed their imagery with her own brushwork—an imbrication of painting and photography that blended mechanical reproduction and manual skill along an unevenly textured picture plane.
Many of these postcards were souvenirs, so to speak, from her extensive travels in India and Japan, including a 1979 courier trip she undertook as part of her twelve years of employment at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It felt like more than a coincidence, then, that Pindell opened her exhibition just before the museum debuted an expansion of its collection galleries—signaling its intentions to narrate a more open-ended, diverse, and global story of modernism than the one first schematized by Alfred Barr in the 1930s. Autobiography was a master class in miniature for thinking through painting’s histories outside the narrow framework of Euro-American medium specificity. Each work held in suspension a welter of materials, crafts, and conventions stemming from multiple locales and traditions.
For Autobiography: Fire (Suttee), 1986–87, Pindell stitched several patches of unstretched canvas into a rough oval that she then covered with a dense layer of acrylic crosshatching, occasionally interrupted by pictures of women’s hands culled from fashion advertisements. In naturalist modes of drawing and etching, hatch marks are an elementary unit for denoting shadows. Here, untethered from the task of modeling volumes, they instead activate the painting’s optical surface with bold juxtapositions of blue, green, and orange—precisely the kind of Josef Albers color contrasts that Pindell would have studied during her MFA training at the Yale School of Art. Pindell’s catalogue text likens the hatch marks to African techniques of scarification; during her time at moma, Pindell would have certainly noticed that Pablo Picasso made similar use of clotted paint to simulate the patterned cuts on tribal masks in Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. The buildup of pigment is so thick that a viewer might initially miss that the gaps in the canvas’s stitching form the outline of a woman. This cutout figure functions as a surrogate for Pindell’s own feelings of fragmentation following her accident; as an homage to the Silueta performances of her peer Ana Mendieta, who was killed in 1985; and as an allusion to the contentious Indian tradition of widows immolating themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Rituals of beautification, bodily violence, sewing, Bauhaus color theory, primitivist appropriation, chiaroscuro, and commercial photography all cohere into a complex object of overlapping lineages.
In the catalogue commentary on Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto), 1982, Pindell directs her readers to consult Google for images of the Ginkakuji pavilion, a fifteenth-century Zen temple; in another, for Autobiography: Artemis, 1986, she mentions that her DNA ancestry can be traced back to Greece. Online search engines and genetic testing are strikingly anachronistic points of reference for contextualizing a series of paintings completed in the 1980s. Pindell’s subtle self-updating offers insight into why painting persists long after formalist narratives of art history have proclaimed its demise. As the technologies for recording and accessing information become overwhelmingly expansive, painting, however hybrid, remains a powerful tool for converting floods of data into reservoirs of memory.