As a young girl, artist Howardena Pindell took a road trip. Somewhere in northern Kentucky, her family stopped off at a root beer stand for refreshment. There, they were handed drinking glasses marked by curious little red circles underneath.
“This was during segregation so that glassware, silverware, anything that was to be used by an African-American, had a red circle under it, so you didn't use the same utensils as the whites,” she recounts. “That blew my mind.”
It was that one fateful episode — casual discrimination accepted as normal, lived and experienced every day by people of color — that was to provide both a formal motif and a contextual underpinning for the next five decades of Pindell’s eclectic artistic production. Pindell’s art would explore a myriad of themes and practices over the years, but, somehow, she would always circle back around to dots, whether they were the hole-punched stencils she used as she squeegeed paint across the surface of a canvas or chads sprinkled like confetti across a board.
“I was instinctively drawn to the circle because it was part of an internal conflict,” she explains. “I started off with drawing circles and it stayed with me ever since.”
Now Pindell’s work is on view at The Rose Museum in “What Remains to Be Seen,” a major retrospective tracing the artist’s multi-faceted career. In an exhibit spanning the entire museum, a rarity at the Rose, the range, depth and sheer size of Pindell’s oeuvre is apparent. And although the artist, curator, teacher and activist has been prolific over her lifetime, at 75, she is still creating.
“My work keeps changing and evolving,” she says.
“What Remains to Be Seen” reveals an artist who has allowed herself a delicious license to play. She has sprinkled glitter, talcum powder, thread and perfume over her canvases in a luxurious display of excess. She has punched holes in paper and used the punched paper as a stencil and the paper chads as texture. She has created paintings solely of numbers, written out, minutely and meticulously, and she has created mixed media self-portraits that include texture, text and photographs. She has made videos. She’s done paintings with postcards and created shaped and rounded canvases. She’s done very personal work with autobiographical elements, and work that is more universal and political. She’s protested racism and gender bias, not only in the world at large, but in the art world. Some of her work is a riot of bright color. Other work is somber, and gray, or monochromatic. In many instances, her work has mirrored larger art world trends, and in some instances, it has even led them. Through it all, the mainstay has been a painterly eye, a fascination with formal elements, and a willingness to plunge in and tell the truth, even at the expense of art world fame.
“That's just the way I am,” she says of her willingness to experiment. “I just keep moving on and discovering new things.”
Pindell received her undergraduate art training at Boston University in the 1960s before moving on to Yale, where, in 1967, she earned an MFA. Her tenure at BU was not an easy time. She was initially the only black student in the program, and in the years of turmoil surrounding the civil rights movement, the color of her skin was a constant problem, both at the school and in the world.
“It was during the time of the Children's Crusade and the death of King and the Kennedys,” she says. “Boston was very racist. I think it still has problems. If you went to a restaurant in Boston when I was in school, they would say you couldn't eat there because they didn't serve blacks.”
After Yale, Pindell moved to New York City and got a job in the Museum of Modern Art’s Education Department. That job would later turn into a long-term curatorial appointment in MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books. During the day, she worked as a curator, but at night she would make her own work.
In her early days as a painter, Pindell made figurative paintings with a fauvist feel, but ultimately that would change. Practicalities figured into that decision. Pindell lived in a small apartment with very little light. It was hard to make the kind of paintings she once had, so she began experimenting. One of her experiments involved hole-punched manila folders which she used as a stencil. She saved the resulting chads, numbered them and stuck them to graph paper and mat board. The stencil and chad paintings became a part of the artistic conversation of the moment, trading heavily on modern art's grid structure. But Pindell’s idiosyncratic take was something new. Her interest in experimentation led her to make “cut and sewn” paintings, large works constructed from strips of canvas that were sewn together and collaged with chads, glitter and even cat hair, and then spritzed with perfume. Many of her paintings were made unstretched, hung from the wall directly from a nail. Pindell was making “serious” art, deconstructing not only canvas but the very notion of art, but in a mischievous way that suggested a childlike interest in materiality.
It was in these years that Pindell began to attract attention. She was one of several African-American abstractionists, including Al Loving, William T. Williams, Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten and Frank Bowling, who in the 1970s were bucking notions of what they should be painting. In the black community, some felt their brand of formal, non-representational art didn’t reflect the black experience. Pindell says she was told by the director of a prominent museum in Harlem to take her abstract works and “go show downtown with the white boys.” On the other hand, white gallery owners overtly discriminated against black and female artists. Pindell recalls one white gallery owner agreed to represent her but refused to advertise her as belonging to the gallery’s stable of artists. Other gallery owners charged black artists a higher commission to sell their work.
Pindell protested these and other practices when she could. She would write extensively about racial and gender inequalities in the art world, (“The Howardena Pindell Papers” are available online at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s website -- the MCA Chicago is also where the Pindell retrospective first opened) and she helped to found the Artists in Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery in New York, an artists’ cooperative gallery run by women to support women artists. (She would eventually leave the gallery, feeling that the white feminists failed to recognize racial discrimination against women of color.)
“When you look at Howardena's career and when you talk to Howardena, she has a tremendous amount of knowledge from the experience of having fought for that position,” says Caitlin Julia Rubin, assistant curator at The Rose. “And she's also very aware that she shouldn't have had to fight in the way that she had to.”
As the call of her own work grew stronger Pindell left MoMA to accept a professorship in the art department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. There, she taught while simultaneously doing her own work until, in 1979, she sustained a severe head injury in a car accident. After that, Pindell’s work changed.
If in previous years she had wandered away from figurative work, she now was drawn back to it. She began a series of mixed media autobiographical collages incorporating postcards from her own travels, which were meant, in part, to jar her own memory since the accident had caused memory loss. Her work also began to take on a more political cast. In 1980, she made her noted video “Free, White and 21” which examined white feminist hypocrisy and blindness to racial oppression. She began incorporating the human figure into her work, including her own, and took on such themes as homelessness, the genocide of Native Americans, AIDS, war and famine.
“I feel like one of my responsibilities as an artist and as a world citizen is to bring up issues that some people would like to bury under the rug,” she says. “I sometimes find that a visual statement might be stronger than if someone was sitting down and reading a book. I just feel it necessary to do that kind of work in order to at least know that I'm trying to help to make things better.”
Although Pindell has continued to teach and create since art school, for a time, her name virtually disappeared from the art scene. Bad dealers, she says. But then she was introduced to a young New York gallery owner by the name of Garth Greenan. His gallery, noted for showcasing historically important artists, held a solo show of her work in 2014, and suddenly, her fortunes changed. That show was instrumental in introducing her work to a younger group of artists and collectors.
Although there's still a ways to go, at least a few things have changed since the days when red circles delineated which glassware touched the lips of an African-American. Abstract African-American artist Mark Bradford is creating work that is now valued among the most expensive of any living artist. Artists like Shinique Smth, Tomashi Jackson and Jennie C. Jones do abstract work that gets museum and gallery shows, and doesn’t necessarily touch on cultural identity. In her long career, Pindell certainly has fought for this kind of freedom.
“I think that it's all thanks to them — Howardena and her generation — that the museum world is changing and that you're seeing the types of shows that you're seeing right now,” says Rubin. “It’s all thanks to that incredible group.“
No matter what may be happening in the world at large, Pindell, has never stopped making art. Although she relies on a walker and has difficulty moving around, she gets help in the studio from two assistants, who climb ladders to reach the tops of large paintings. She also has a driver who takes her from her home in New York to the SUNY Stony Brook campus twice a week. She’s got loads of ideas, like always, and continues to produce two main threads of work — her more formal work concerned with problems of form and color, and her more political work. Right now, she’s excited about new three-dimensional pieces she’s working on for The Shed, a new art space opening in New York City in April. She’s not allowed to talk much about it until the unveiling, but she concedes that the work will include foam and PVA glue.
And, of course, dots.