Howardena Pindell, like many of her fellow Black, female peers, has long been under-appreciated for her contributions to contemporary art, and this touring career survey covers a full fifty years of her artwork, activism, writing, and work as a curator and educator. Embedded within the exhibition is a timeline of Pindell’s life. Among the contents are two photographs of the artist, strikingly dissimilar despite the fact they were taken a mere five years apart. The first, dating to 1967, shows Pindell as a 24-year-old career woman sitting in her office at the Museum of Modern Art, looking neatly polished and professional. She sits upright with impeccable posture, hands crossed, looking demurely away from the camera. The other, taken circa 1972, shows her in the studio, sitting casually on a bucket or can, with her elbows resting on her pants soiled at the knees with the materials of her practice. The artist looks straight at the camera, with one hand raised to scratch her head, with a slightly quizzical look, as if asking “What are you looking at?”
The two photos are somewhat ancillary, but their striking juxtaposition drives home a truth about Pindell that is demonstrated over and over again in the exhibition: her life and work cover an array of modes and tenors, moving between and among artistic mediums and styles, art world factions, and activist camps. Not that Pindell comes across as a chameleon who blends into any situation to remain unseen or be readily accepted. In fact, the opposite seems to be true; despite the risks of disconnection, strife, or misunderstanding with those around her, Pindell unapologetically refuses to conform or be true to anyone but herself. She pursues her interests and concerns, disregarding the parameters of existing tribes and silos. As exhibition co-curator Naomi Beckwith states: “Before it was a term, Howardena Pindell was thinking about intersectionality… what it means to create in this world, but also be a full human being.”
As an artist, Pindell does not fit neatly into any preconceptions. She shuttles between abstraction and representation, often blending the two. Although trained as a painter, she moves between mediums, experimenting with sculpture, photography, and video. She straddles the aesthetic concerns of Modernism and the social and cultural concerns of Postmodernism. In his essay for the exhibition catalog, artist Charles Gaines explores how Pindell never subscribed to the generally accepted binaries of sensory versus intellectual, aesthetic versus discursive, subjective versus social, and constructs a philosophical argument for how Pindell has been able to be so pluralistic.
Pindell self-identifies as “rebellious,” and relays that her push back against expectations began during her training as a painter—first at Boston University and then Yale—with such gestures as using acrylics instead of oil, embracing collage, and experimenting with color. Some of the earliest works in the exhibition dating to the late 1960s show the clear influence of Post-Minimalism and Conceptualism. Untitled (1968-70) is based on a grid, but the large sculpture is composed of soft materials stuffed into canvas and held together with rings. Its construction makes the piece both soft and collapsible. Two-dimensional works from this time also demonstrate clear adherence to gridded geometries and conceptual exercises such as counting and structured mark-making on graph paper supports. And yet, many of these works incorporate strips of painting and collage, resulting in works that are reminiscent of quilts. Pindell used a hole puncher to produce chads which she later began to number and utilize in myriad ways, attaching them to the surface of canvases and works on paper, sometimes sparsely and other times in an explosion of texture. These works blend the rigidity of geometry and the formulaic approach of Conceptualism with the all-over compositional approach and, at times, riotous color of Expressionism.
Pindell’s use of a predominantly abstract vocabulary gained her early praise within the established art world, but also brought resentment from certain members of the Black community. “Being abstract was also frowned on in the Black community in the ‘70s, and people like Bill Williams [William T. Williams (NA 2017)] and myself were thought of as almost kind of traitors, like we should be doing work that is specific to the Black community, and I remember both Bill and I on different occasions went to the Studio Museum in Harlem with our work and the Director told us to ‘Go downtown and show with the white boys.’"
In the early 1970s, she began her Video Drawings, the name of which reveals a bit of its process but belies the fact that the series is, in fact, photography. She placed clear sheets of acetate—upon which she had drawn arrows, numbers, and small marks—over her television screen and photographed the results. The drawings imply a type of mapping or data charting, layered over frozen broadcast images. Despite the somewhat random nature of the process, the results feel highly intentional. Their spirit mirrors other artists of the day who were playing with self-defined conceptual parameters, exploring the powerful medium of television, and using the body as a site of performance. Perhaps one of the least expected things about the series is that the majority of the images she shot are of athletes, playing baseball and hockey, running track, and swimming. Such popular subjects as sports were mostly ignored by the art world at the time. The exhibition’s curatorial narrative puts forward that Pindell moved to figuration after 1979, but these earlier works show her moving in that direction. Additionally, one can perhaps read very subtle references to the body in Pindell’s use of such unconventional materials as talc and perfume in her early abstract paintings.
While Pindell’s artwork may have not been overtly political in the late 1960s and 1970s, her concerns were. She felt the conflicting pulls of her academic training and interest in Modernist abstraction, with the more overt needs of the civil rights and women’s movements. Her work during this time reflects some of these conflicts. “I was really pissed off at the women’s movement,” she recalls in the video that accompanies the exhibition, yet she served as one of the original founders of A.I.R., the pivotal women’s cooperative that exists to this day. One of the greatest sources of conflict arose at her prestigious job. Pindell was hired as an assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, and worked her way up the ranks, becoming the first African-American woman curator at the venerated institution. She found her colleagues to be less than fully accepting of her: “Working at the Modern is a little like being a gladiator at the Colosseum. You know, you have to watch your back.” During her tenure there, she found that her institutional affiliation and her political activism were not seen by others as complementary. She was asked to serve on the Byers Committee to investigate racial inclusion in the arts, yet found that her museum colleagues resented her for protesting such exclusions elsewhere in New York. She wanted to become active with the Art Workers Coalition but at meetings found that members distrusted her because she worked at MoMA, one of the institutions they were targeting for protest. Ultimately, Pindell found these aspects of her life to be at cross-purposes and left the museum after twelve years of employment. A car accident the same year left her injured, but also newly determined to address the issues of greatest concern to her.
The differences in racial experience are laid bare in Pindell’s video Free, White and 21 (1980) in which she recounts multiple stories of being discriminated against from childhood to adulthood, incidents at once horrific and frightfully common. This retelling is interspersed with the reactions of a white character who responds to such stories of systemic racism by calling Pindell “paranoid” and “ungrateful,” ultimately stating point-blank that whites alone possess the authority to judge the legitimacy of Black experience and expression: “You won’t exist until we validate you.” Notably, this white character is played by Pindell in a blonde wig, skin lightened with makeup and, later, with white hosiery pulled over her head. When “playing” herself, she performs two unexpected acts; in one scene, peeling a thin membrane off of her face, while at other times, she envelopes her entire head in bandages, and later systematically removes and re-rolls them. The bandage is a direct reference to the head injury the artist sustained in the car accident the prior year, but when viewed alongside the other gestures, it serves as a device to counteract any misconception of race or identity as functioning like a mask or covering that one can don or remove at will.
Over the following years, Pindell explored inequity in the art world in such pieces as Art Crow Jim Crow (1988), in which she juxtaposed art galleries’ whites-only artist rosters with the whites-only public signage of the segregation era. She fearlessly delved into other hard-hitting topics, including the AIDS crisis and starvation in Africa. She also felt free to indulge her interest in science fiction and the cosmos, again defying expectations. For several decades, she has shuttled between abstraction and representation as she sees fit. She explains this alteration as being necessary for her personal mental and emotional balance.
Although Pindell’s identity as a Black woman is at the fore of the broad range of her work in and out of the studio, she yet again challenges oversimplification by reminding viewers that race is not unalloyed. In a lithograph entitled Pindell/DNA (2012), she illustrates her results from a home DNA testing kit, revealing and quantifying her mixed genetic heritage. We see that Pindell’s ancestry is rooted in Africa and Europe, specifically Sudan and Greece. It serves as a reminder that race is not simply about countries or continents of origin, but is the result of many generations of colonialism, diasporic movement, and voluntary and involuntary blending.
This survey reveals Pindell as a multifaceted polymath who embraces the subjects, styles, and approaches that drive her through both artwork and activism. The personal and autobiographical vary in terms of their explication, but as exhibition co-curator Valerie Cassel Oliver reminds us, “An artist never truly leaves who they are behind.”
– Lauren Ross