Long relegated to the margins of art history, Howardena Pindell’s work will appear this Sunday in the exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. But it is hardly the only exhibition this year to feature her paintings, videos, and photo-based work—pieces are also included in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” on view next month at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” which opens next at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. And, to top all this off, a major survey of her work will open next month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. To look back on her career, we’ve gone through our archives, and pulled excerpts of articles related to Pindell’s art, from a review by Douglas Crimp to an excerpt of my profile of Pindell, which appears in the current issue of ARTnews. —Alex Greenberger
“New York Reviews”
By Lawrence Campbell
Howardena Pindell, assistant curator, department of prints and illustrated books, at the Museum of Modern Art, is primarily a painter. She has exhibited in many national and international exhibitions, including some concentrating on the achievements of black women artists. This recent show (at A.I.R.), consisting of large abstract paintings, was her first one-woman appearance in New York. She coats each of her paintings with tiny circular dots of color in numerous layers, applied by squeezing paint through a kind of template or stencil of paper, with small holes perforating it at random, as though an entire landscape were burning. Her images are dark and smoldering; there is a slow vibration in depth, a feeling of going in and out, a dark, shimmering light.
“Reviews and Previews”
By Douglas Crimp
Howardena Pindell (A.I.R.): Pindell’s vocabulary includes numbers and dots arrayed on grids. The relationships vary from loosely systematic (16 paper dots pasted over 25 graph paper grid squares in a 4:5 ratio) to completely random. Much has been made of women’s use of grid structure (beginning with Agnes Martin) and even more so of procedures which seem to be extensions of women’s traditional handicrafts. There is a similarity to activities like needlepoint and knitting in Pindell’s seemingly mindless and obsessive numbering and pasting. However, in an art that depends on a system, it is the decision to use, and how to use, the system that constitutes the work, while the process of manufacture is intentionally perfunctory.
“New York Reviews”
By Madeleine Burnside
Howardena Pindell (Just Above Midtown): Pindell exhibited two very different series of drawings. Her “video drawings” extend her earlier “numbers” series in the direction of color. Small numerals drawn on acetate were placed over a television screen, which was then photographed at a 15th of a second, allowing the numbers to be clearly readable while the video image, though usually recognizable, became blurred. Pindell has found sports to be the most satisfactory television subject. . . .
Pindell’s is an esthetic of intuitive composition. She is not concerned with the conceptual possibilities of working with numbers, and finds amusing those who attempt to decode her work in this way. Instead she succeeds in creating intense objects that invite the view to a rich visual feast.
“Black Artists Today: A Case of Exclusion”
By Patricia Failing
The relative invisibility of black artists in New York art publications, for example, is a reflection of their low profile in major New York galleries and museums. Many artists agree with [curator Lowery Stokes] Sims that today exclusion of minority artists from these institutions tends to be accomplished indirectly, through judgements about artistic competence and quality. Since the negative experiences of one artist, however, can always be viewed as an exceptional case or the regrettable consequence of less-than-first rate talent, attempts to document double-edged discrimination often flounder over the problem of convincing evidence.
Acknowledging this difficulty, artist Howardena Pindell, a former associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, compiled a seven-year statistical report on museum exhibitions and current New York gallery representation of the 11,000 black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American painters, sculptures, craftspeople, photographers, graphic designers, and architects who live and work in New York State. As of mid-1988, according to data cited in the report, 39 galleries in New York City, including nearly all of the most prestigious spaces, represented only white artists. Only the artists in ten galleries out of a total of 64 surveyed throughout the state were less than 90 percent white, and one of those ten was in the process of closing.
“Reviews: Howardena Pindell at Cyrus”
By Ruth Bass
Autobiography is one central theme of Howardena Pindell’s recent work: her autobiography as a black, a woman, and an individual who has traveled throughout the work seeing answers and inspiration, not only in this country and Europe but also in Asia and Africa. In retracing her mental and emotional journeys, she becomes a surrogate for everyone who wonders or worries about the state of humankind.
In the most striking works, Pindell has traced one or more versions of her own body on large, unstretched canvases shaped like ovoids or rounded rectangles, and then sewn the pieces back together with heavy, visible stitches. The whole surface is covered by thick hatchings of bright acrylic, collaged pictures and by phrases made from vinyl lettering. . . .
[T]hese are beautiful works, with their brilliant color, richly encrusted surfaces, and defiant figures.
“The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters”
By Hilarie M. Sheets
As a graduate student at Yale in the mid-1960s Howardena Pindell, 71, also found inspiration in the work of the older generation of abstractionists—namely Ad Reinhardt’s paintings of close-value colors and Larry Poons’s Op art canvases of circles and ovals. Throughout the ’70s, Pindell experimented with color, surface, and texture. She cut out hundreds of tiny paper dots with a standard hole puncher, collaged them onto cut-and-quilted canvases, and smothered them in layers of acrylic, dye, sequins, glitter, and powder. One of them, the pale, luminous Untitled #20: Dutch Wives, Circled and Squared (1978), was included in “Black in the Abstract.”
“I remember going with my abstract work to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the director at the time said to me, ‘Go downtown and show with the white boys,’” says Pindell, adding that William T. Williams and Al Loving met with the same kind of response. “We were basically considered traitors because we didn’t do specifically didactic work.”
Pindell, who just had an exhibition at Garth Greenan in New York, says her conscious intention was to explore the esthetic possibilities of the circle when she started on those works. Then she was startled by a childhood memory that came back to her. On a car ride through Kentucky in the 1950s, she and her father, who lived in Philadelphia, stopped at a root-beer stand and were served mugs with red circles on the bottom.
“I asked my father, ‘What is this red circle?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘That’s because we’re black and we cannot use the same utensils as the whites.’ I realized that’s really the origin of my being driven to try to change the circle in my mind, trying to take the sting out of that.”
By Alex Greenberger
This coming February, [Pindell’s 1980 video] Free, White and 21, along with five decades of Pindell’s paintings, collages, writings, drawings, and videos, will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of her first major traveling museum survey, “What Remains to Be Seen.” Pindell’s work, which will be shown alongside documentation of her activist projects, has always been about the connection between identity and art making, and the show will certainly explore that. But the more challenging mandate for MCA curator Naomi Beckwith is to fully illuminate the career of an artist whose service on the front lines of so many battlefields, from abstract painting to activist protests, is finally moving into the spotlight.
“When you have a show of this scale, you have a continuation of a line of inquiry,” Beckwith said. “Howardena has these offshoots that, in many ways, I think historians have had a hard time encapsulating into a story.” Valerie Cassel Oliver, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts who worked on the show with Beckwith, added, “She’s somewhat elusive. People really don’t know what to do with the work.”