THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Looking Back, Looking Forward:

Howardena Pindell

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Howardena Pindell’s long career can be characterized by, among other things, an overarching sense of dissonance, of the seemingly irreconcilable. She is, among other things, an academically trained figurative painter who has prolifically contributed to unique modes of abstraction; a black artist whose work was not considered “black” enough; a creator occupied by both physical and cerebral experience, crossing the binary upheld even today; and an active artist who worked inside and outside the system, participating as a curator and scholar, too, and who crossed from modernism into postmodernism. Perhaps the most notable dissonance can be located in her recognition, which is disproportionately misaligned with her various achievements as creator, curator, teacher, and activist. What Remains to Be Seen highlights this dissonance and explicates it, transforming the nebulous discordance of Pindell’s practice and reception into something more akin to illuminating non-linearity. A Yale graduate (the only African-American MFA there in 1967), one of the first African-American curators at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, a founding member of the bellwether A.I.R. Gallery, and an ardent activist and author, Pindell has come in and out of the focus over the course of her five-plus-decades-long career. This show, curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, deftly translates the artist’s expansive, idiosyncratic practice into a narrative at once smoothly decipherable and nuanced for a contemporary audience, firmly rooting her in the canon and leaving the door ajar for future scholarship.

The exhibition is organized, neatly, into two parts: pre-1979—the year of a major, life-altering car accident—and post-1979. At first pass, this symmetry appears facile, perhaps even reductive; it echoes the accepted narrative about Pindell’s practice until now: the traumatic physical and emotional injuries she sustained conjured in her a commitment to activism, a pivot reflected in the figuration that creeps into her work following her accident. Pindell herself has attested to this, and there is certainly a visible shift in her works that appears to uphold this argument. However, the curators’ symmetrical framing in truth belies a much more complex logic, for it both promotes and tears down this line of thinking; they demonstrate its accuracy through a chronologically progressive survey of artworks while also noting its inadequacy in terms of fully comprehending the artist’s arc, pointing out very persuasively the stylistic consistencies that occur and re-occur throughout her career as a means of reconciling these two previously irreconcilable portions. In addition to this formal reading, the exhibition maps Pindell’s career against contextualizing cultural markers; included with Pindell’s creative output is her historical significance, presented as a masterful oeuvre in and of itself.

 

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1968. Garth Greenan Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

 

The development of Pindell’s abstractions, as presented in the first half of the show, offers a fascinating look at her experiments in color, which at some point dovetail with her unique use of hole-punched grids and signature sewing style, resulting in the mesmerizing large-scale abstractions for which she is known. An early example of figuration, completed during her first year of grad school, is a skeleton that appears to be glowing from within; lying prone, but vivified (again, dissonance). Just a few years later, Pindell’s color exploration has been reduced to elegant abstractions—fields of pastel dots against somber backgrounds, affecting the viewer’s sense of perspective. This painterly mode ceases once she moves to New York after grad school, where circumstances require her to “work blind,” as Beckwith notes in her contribution to the exhibition’s catalogue; that is, her cramped Manhattan quarters don’t offer the kind of natural light required by that mode. So, grids and numbers become her medium. The resultant works, subscribing to the austere, rational minimalist tenet of the grid (although, as the wall texts point out, Pindell’s mathematician father’s ledger books may have also been an inspiration), are remarkably playful, with Pindell’s human presence always close at hand. Consider 1-6031 with Additions, Corrections, and Coffee Stain (1973). It is a massive piece of graph paper on which she drew thousands of numbers in sequence. The title already expresses the human-ness, the imperfection of the system (c.f. corrections, coffee stain), and though the very feat of patience and muscle memory feels both impressive and oppressive, the unevenness of the columns represents a welcome sign of breathing life. Similarly, Pindell’s large-scale gridded fabric Untitled (1968-70) hangs against a wall, its bottom row resting limply on the ground. It is a grid to pack up and take with you; a grid that is toothless and soft and wholly corporeal, sensuous even.

During this time, Pindell developed a method of applying paint through another grid of sorts, created by hole-punching stiff card stock. Using this as a stencil, Pindell would spray paint several veils of color onto canvas, creating works such as a large untitled green and pink abstraction from 1970. Recalling pointillist gestures, the work appears to be vibrating with light and motion, suggesting particles, or the hazy light of a daydream. Not surprisingly, Pindell amassed a copious collection of punched-out chads, and she soon incorporated this unexpected art supply into her work. These little disks, which she often marked with numbers, began to populate her works on paper and in paintings alike. At a small scale, they look like precious notations; in larger compositions, such as one from 1972-73 which also features spray-painted veils of color (the first such work), the little chads look like distant faraway stars in the night sky. This then gives way to giant accumulations of chads on the surfaces of unstretched canvases—riveting swaths of enigmatic texture in pastel hues, such as New York: Night Light (1977), a light pink confection of punched-out dots, as well as the stencils themselves. One room in particular features four of these wholly absorbing works; a moment of pause should be required for any visitor to get lost in the delicious, meditative, ethereal feeling they inspire.

We are brought back to reality in the 1979, the midpoint of the exhibition, which is represented by an entire section dedicated to that year in Pindell’s life and in the world at large. To underline the historical importance of this year, the section also features a timeline of Pindell’s career up until then. Since 1967, Pindell had been employed at the MoMA, rising up the ranks to become one of their first African-American curators, of Prints and Illustrated Books. During the 1970s, she was also included in public exhibitions at Spelman College, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, for example (although she was famously excluded from the newly-formed Studio Museum in Harlem, her favored abstractions not being deemed “black” enough). In 1973, she travelled to Africa with another pioneering African American curator, Lowery Stokes Sims, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and earned a grant to work in Paris in 1975. Also active in the downtown arts scene, in 1972 Pindell was a founding member of A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery, a trailblazing feminist nonprofit exhibition space. In 1979, another downtown nonprofit gallery, Artists Space, organized an exhibition of charcoal drawings by white artist Donald Newman, crassly titled “The Nigger Drawings.” This prompted Pindell, along with a group of peers, to create the group Action Against Racism in the Arts (AARA), which wrote a letter to the gallery in protest. The controversy was largely perceived as a free speech issue, and Pindell was thus seen as promoting censorship. Increasingly alienated from her coworkers at MoMA, Pindell resigned from her position after twelve years at the institution and entered an associate professor position at SUNY Stony Brook. It is here that she sustained the traumatic head injury from a car accident, altering the course of her life and her work.

Notably, the room focused Howardena’s dramatic experiences in the year 1979 also features several walls jam-packed with other major events around the world that same year, transporting the viewer to the specifics of Pindell’s time and place when these very personal events occurred. This also illustrates the sociopolitical crises that were playing out at the time, and which Pindell would very vocally respond to in her later works. This gesture also makes one think about our own time and place: what will our “room” look like in the future? How can we think about our own context and that of the art produced today?

Pindell suffered amnesia from the accident, and the work that immediately follows it can be read as a means of recalling her life and reclaiming her memories. In this light, her video piece Free, White and 21 (1980) is a mnemonic device wherein she plays herself (recounting instances of racism from her past), as well as a white counterpart (Pindell in white makeup and a blonde wig) offering pithy rebuttals such as, “After all we have done for you… we will find other tokens.” This iconic work, Pindell’s outspoken rebuke against her supposed “feminist” allies, whose liberal tendencies still excluded overt discussions of racism (and which ultimately prompted her resignation from A.I.R. in 1973), is indeed a departure from the dreamy formalism of the aforementioned abstractions: its content is far more autobiographical and politically-charged, and of course, it presents the use of a new medium (video) featuring the image of the artist herself. However, then again, perhaps it is not such a departure. Considered along with her earlier work, one might see the same vivid hues in the background, or the material of the bandage she wraps and then unwraps around her head as not dissimilar from her demonstrated interest in gauzy textiles, or still her form itself as not in fact so absent from the labor-intensive assemblages and numbered grids from her pre-1979 life.

And so, a sort of dual reckoning occurs in the second part of the show in which a continuity is revealed at the same time as a chasm is formed. The tight, historical approach of the first half unravels in the second part of the show, which is by and large arranged thematically, befitting the notion that Pindell has always been Pindell, even if we’ve failed to see it.

Indeed, she continues to laboriously work her surfaces in the Autobiography series of the 1980s, marrying disparate materials from her life together, but now boldly goes steps further. If previously, the chad could be seen as the remnant of a necessary physical act in her artmaking, and thus a sort of piece from her daily life as a creator, now the presence of her world and her world vision becomes even stronger; now bits of postcards she collected or sent on her travels, photographs she took, and even portions of text convey specific content drawn directly from her lived experience and her personal worldview. In some cases, such as in Autobiography: Fire (Suttee) (1986-87), she herself gives physical form to this works. She traces the outline of her body on canvas, literally embedding herself in a field of her own making; she is thus subject and object.

 

Howardena Pindell, Astronomy: Saturn, Nebula, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

 

Pindell’s interest in connecting varied, dissonant elements plays out across the show’s entirety—opposing registers, layers and materials in her earlier works; different moments in time and objective/subjective experience later—and this gesture can be seen quite wonderfully in her ongoing series of Video Drawings. In these works, she adheres translucent sheets of clear acetate marked with arrows, numbers and similarly directive graphic forms onto her television screen, taking a photo when the image beneath appears to match up compellingly with the overlay. This series began in the 1970s, often with images taken from sports; here, the movement of bodies piqued Pindell’s formalist interest, and the resultant works suggest enigmatic choreography or game plans, nonspecifically implying a link between the two layers of text/image. Of course, chance, the found object, and even the stencil are all present here as well, and resonate deeply with her hole-punch works. Later, this process became a locale for more overt political protest. War: A Thousand Points of Light (White Phosphorus) (1988) combines an image of a white phosphorous bomb explosion with the phrase “a thousand points of light,” promoted by George H.W. Bush as a positive metaphor for US volunteerism. In the year of the photograph’s making, Saddam Hussein used white phosphorous in an attack on a city in Southern Kurdistan. The intended benevolence of the phrase becomes gravely ironic when juxtaposed with the lights of the bomb, which in turn chillingly suggests celebratory Fourth of July fireworks.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Pindell continued creating overt, intense responses to the failings of society, addressing everything from war to apartheid to the AIDS crisis and police brutality through her particular formal lexicon. Hunger: The Color of Bones (2014) features a large, mixed-media canvas banner with images and text related to “starvation,” “wars,” “holocausts,” “genocide,” and “drought,” in front of which is field of human skeletons. This trans-historical diorama of sorts—evoking everything from natural disasters and our inadequate responses to them to war and to even the horrific tragedy of the Donner party—conveys an amalgamation of the moral crimes we have perpetuated against ourselves.

 

Howardena Pindell, Night Flight, 2015–16. Mixed media on canvas; 75 × 63 in. Garth Greenan Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

 

The exhibition closes with works that convey Pindell’s interest in cosmology, a fittingly macro zoom out that allows her an expanded view of the world in which we live, perhaps allowing some relief from the travails of humanity’s imperfections; we are nothing but small, chance happenings in a vast, infinite universe. As another section devoted to Pindell’s many travels around the globe shows, she relishes the opportunity to shift her perspective through engagement with other ways of seeing and being. Circular shapes—mirroring, of course, her beloved chad—coil and spiral into organically organized compositions. Created with her signature sewing process, a stalwart reference to her grids, as well as African textiles she encountered on trips to Africa in the 1970s, and featuring a highly textured mixed media surface, works such as Night Flight (2015-16) look back to her beginnings and forward to her future as a both an artistic creator and a human citizen of this planet. As the exhibition title suggests, this is a survey that eagerly anticipates what will come next for her as a seasoned, searching creator and for us as a society more generally.

It should be noted that the exhibition’s catalogue is not merely an accompaniment but also a true extension of the show. It features an array of essays addressing the various rich aspects of Pindell’s practice by a heady mix of peers (e.g., Lowery Stokes Sims and artist Charles Gaines), and those whose own roads owe much to Pindell’s trailblazing path (e.g., Naomi Beckwith, Valerie Cassel Oliver, and MCA Assistant Curator Grace Deveney). It also includes an invaluable chronology of Pindell’s life tracked against a backdrop of significant world events by Sarah Cowan, which encapsulates Pindell’s dynamic relevance not only as contemporary artist, but also as an activist and a pioneering curator. Finally, it includes interviews with the artist and her own writing, The Howardena Pindell Papers, which attest to her status as a veritable renaissance woman. She provides a multilayered, dynamic creator-model that is a necessary response to the complex circumstances in which we all live and operate today. As the curators write in their own opening thoughts, the show “aims to examine one artist’s creative and social output in a way that allows us to think about contemporary practices in which object making, activism, advocacy, scholarship, and self-actualization become increasingly and inextricably intertwined.” What remains to be seen, indeed.

 

It should be noted that the exhibition’s catalogue is not only an accompaniment, but a true extension of the show. It features an array of essays addressing rich aspects of Pindell’s practice by a heady mix of peers (Lowery Stokes Sims, artist Charles Gaines), and those whose own roads owe much to Pindell’s trailblazing path (Naomi Beckwith, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Grace Deveney, MCA Assistant Curator). It also includes an invaluable chronology of Pindell’s life tracked against a backdrop of significant world events by Sarah Cowan, which encapsulates Pindell’s dynamic relevance not only as contemporary artist, but as an activist and a trailblazing curator. Finally, it includes interviews with the artist and her own writing, The Howardena Pindell Papers.

 

Aniko Berman is an art writer based in Chicago. She previously covered the art world in New York, writing reviews and artist interviews for various publications including Flash Art International. She is currently Director at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980. Videotape (color, sound). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Garth Greenan and Bryan Davidson Blue, 2014.22. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1968. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1968. Image courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

 

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