Artist Howardena Pindell may not be a household name, but the items she applies in her work are – glitter, perfume, talcum powder.
“This is a new mode of thinking for art making,” says Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago Curator Naomi Beckwith, who put together “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” with Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Currently at MCA Chicago, the exhibition is the first major survey of the multidisciplinary artist’s five-decade career. The show follows Pindell’s evolution from figurative painter to creator of abstract and conceptual works that relay her perspectives on personal, political (racism, feminism, violence, slavery), and natural (the cosmos) matters through a variety of mediums.
“Looking at the show should be like looking at visual art developing over the last 50 years in America, from traditional painting to experimental painting into wildly innovative multimedia objects,” Beckwith explains. “This isn’t just a celebration of her work but of her life as a teacher who has influenced so many artists and as a curator who was a pioneer as the first black woman to hold a curating position at the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] in New York.”
Indeed, Pindell’s life behind the canvas is intertwined with her art. When professionally discriminated against by a culture that celebrated white male artists, she helped found A.I.R. Galleries (a feminist collective for female artists) in the early 1970s. After a car accident left her with short-term memory loss at the decade’s end, Pindell reconstructed her recollections by transforming her own travel postcards into art collages.
In addition to her “Autobiography” series, visual artist Pindell morphed into a performing artist by stepping in front of the camera for “Free, White, and 21,” a video exploring multiple forms of societal oppression. Pindell also addressed these issues in protest letters penned to institutions (signed with the moniker The Black Hornet) and in her political essay “An American Black Woman Artist in a Japanese Garden” produced in the 1980s.
“She is an activist as much of an artist. And though we take this for granted now, it’s a great example of watching someone learn to use their art as a vehicle of political expression,” notes Beckwith. “Pindell is not a purist – she does not work purely in painting, in sculpture, in video. It is the kind of work that experiments between all modes of making art, and as such looks completely right in today’s age.”
Whether writing, curating, filming, paper hole-punching, or lying on a canvas to literally leave her imprint on the art world, Pindell (who turns 75 on April 14) has carved out her niche as an African-American woman whose art is innovative and enduring.