Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen

Exhibition cocurators Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver discuss Howardena Pindell’s multifaceted life, career, and activism as a black woman and artist in this short documentary featuring archival images and documents, and artworks made throughout Pindell’s fifty-year career.

Naomi Beckwith: In her initial days in New York, Pindell actually had a really nice reception. Or, I should say, her work got a great reception in the New York art world. Once they see her body, as a black woman, the galleries then are hesitant to show the work.

Howardena Pindell: I graduated from Boston U. and joined the MFA program at Yale. It was during the Vietnam War. And I don’t remember seeing another black woman there.

Valerie Cassel Oliver: It is in a time of minimalism. So she’s beginning to take these precepts that she’s being taught and really disrupt them, creating moments where she can insert herself into this conversation around abstraction.

NB: She starts to do mostly untitled work that deals with the shapes of circles and ovals. But they’re usually superimposed over a grid.

HP: There is actually a piece on graph paper and it has pencil ellipses. And then I started doing kind of awkward ones in color, and then they became a little more sophisticated.

NB: Just a couple of years outside of school she finds herself in a studio without any natural light. So all of a sudden, as a painter, she’s trying to create works without the benefit of sight. So she starts making what she calls templates. She makes a grid of circles with the hole punch through this heavy oak tag paper. And she uses these to spray paint through onto the surface of a canvas.

HP: I first started using the punch-outs, and Carl Solway had come to my studio. And I had bags, I had saved all of these circles. I don’t throw things out; I’m like a pack rat, and he said, "Well, how many of those circles are on the canvas?" I said, "Oh, I’ll count them." So that’s when I started using a Rapidograph and counting each circle, working sequentially, and then it got to be in such high numbers that I just wrote whatever number I wanted to.

VCO: Not only is she creating layers through spray painting onto the surface, but then she goes back to affix these small, colored chads onto the surfaces of these works and it is very laborious.

It is a challenge to minimalism. It is a notion of coming in and softening them with other materials; not just looking at paint onto surface of a canvas, but bringing in ordinary objects and things: fabric, resin.

HP: I wanted to be playful, and at the same time, I had a lot of anger at the art world.

NB: So from Howardena’s earliest time in New York she basically had a dual life. She is both painting in her studio, but she’s also a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

VCO: As a curator at MoMA, she is on a task force to really look and study representation in American museums.

She already has activism within her DNA. I mean, her dad was very much an activist. She herself as a young woman sat in the lunch counters at Woolworth in Philadelphia. So that sort of notion of injustice and lack of representation—she’s ripe for understanding and taking that on within the institutions themselves.

HP: There was in 1979 an exhibition—exhibition was at Artist Space by a young artist, Donald Newman. And it was titled Nigger Drawings, and it was all black-and-white abstraction.

NB: He titles the show in a way that would only be a provocation and attract attention.

VCO: Pindell along with a number of artists of that moment began to take the institution to task.

HP: And they saw—to criticize a white male artist as a form of censorship. That’s what got me on the roll in terms of writing about censorship, because censorship meant you silenced the "dominant group."

NB: As a quote-unquote "agent of censorship," she finds herself in a really uncomfortable situation at MoMA and decides to leave her job there after 12 years.

VCO: And Donald Kuspit invites her to become a part of the faculty at SUNY Stony Brook.

NB: And then within a few months of teaching she’s in a massive car accident.

VCO: And she sustains tremendous head injuries because of that; it almost ends her life. It cracks her skull.

NB: And so she decides that she is going to use her work to reconstitute her memories and her life. Her work becomes a kind of mnemonic device, but it also takes on a new urgency.

VCO: She asserts herself to find herself in a very interesting way. It’s a journey of discovery and there is a lack of wanting to be apologetic for being black, for being woman, for being creator.

NB: One of the first objects that came out of this accident is a work called Free, White and 21. It is now a seminal video in the history of video art and at that time was a radical departure for Pindell.

HP: Well Free, White and 21 is, again, I was feeling very pissed off at the women’s movement.

When I brought up issues of racism, what I found was that white American women didn’t wanna talk about it.

They would just say, "This is about politics. I don’t wanna know about this."

NB: What Pindell is doing in that role is reconstituting all the resistance that she’s received from her colleagues mostly in the art world.

Again, the racism she’s experiencing isn’t just coming from the social world; it’s coming from the people who are supposed to be the most sympathetic with her, the people who are supposed to be her allies in this kind of making of a better world.

HP: I wanted to say what I felt. I wanted to express what my memories were, in a way; it was really trying to put myself back together again.

VCO: She begins to look back at photographs and postcards that she had gotten from her mother, from her previous travels.

Postcards and photographs that she had taken

on her own travels. And after a series which she did called Memory Test, she also launches into a series called Autobiography, which really becomes much more an expansive way of her beginning to stitch together her life.

NB: She returns to including the figure in a large-scale way. It looks as if the figures are drawn in; they’re kind of painted or outlined into the canvas. But in fact she creates these works by laying down on the surface of one set of canvas and literally tracing the outline of her body, cutting it out, and using that to suture into yet another canvas.

HP: All of a sudden these pieces were about my personal experience. And then eventually, it became about my political beliefs.

NB: Before it was a term, Howardena Pindell was thinking about intersectionality. Thinking about the ways in which race and gender both intersect to create a condition by which she needs to navigate,

sometimes treacherously; trying to imagine what it means to create in this world but also be a full human being.

VCO: In many ways, as life, you know, things become quite circular. The conversations that were being had at that time, we’re now having again today.

It’s not that Pindell has changed. I think she has stayed very fixed firm to her mission in life.

NB: Whether it’s the AIDS crisis in America and its particularly negative effects on black and brown communities in this country, or apartheid in South Africa, or even the ongoing legacy of slavery and its effects in this country–Pindell feels like these are issues that need to be part of her aesthetic practice.

They also need to be part of greater conversations

around culture and society.

VCO: My hope is that people begin to understand that artists have really never been hermetically sealed in their studios. That they are citizens of the world as well and as much as they create work that we can appreciate and enjoy, they also take our society to task.

I think the presentation really enables people to truly see Howardena in the full capacity: As both artist, as citizen, as activist, and that she continues to create. There is still much to be done and that she’s still there doing it.