For about 40 years, Howardena Pindell has commuted more than two hours each way from upper Manhattan to Stony Brook University — traveling by train and then eventually with a driver — to teach drawing, painting and seminar classes.
On a recent day off, the 74-year-old artist and professor is closer to home, sitting on a long, gray couch in the back room of the Garth Greenan Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. She is taking her first look through the weighty tome that accompanies her career-spanning survey, “What Remains to Be Seen,” a collection of nearly 145 paintings, drawings, collages and videos on view through May 20 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
“I haven’t seen that one in a long time,” says Pindell, pausing on “Gray Space Frame,” a muted ink and Cray-pas drawing she made in 1968. The random array of dots that appears at once to stain and float over the drawing’s streaked gray ground echoes in the large, pixilated painting on a nearby wall and, curiously, on the rain-splattered skylights illuminating it from above. While Pindell’s rich body of work embraces multiple media and styles, dots — clustered in carpetlike thickets or dispersed like sprays of confetti — are her signature form of expression.
Over the years, Pindell has made thousands of dots. “I make drawings in gouache, watercolor and acrylic on both sides of the paper and then destroy them with a hole puncher,” she explains. “I then attach the circles, one by one, with a heavy gel medium onto the canvas.”
To add a sense of depth to the picture plane, Pindell often cuts up her raw, unstretched canvases and sews them back together with heavy-duty nautical thread. She piles the foam, paper and, notably in some works, sequin dots, on top of each other, creates more with punched-out stencils and their remnants, and often incorporates the uneven rims. “I like visual drama and the juxtaposition of a hard edge next to a free form,” she says of the mottled surfaces that bring to mind lunar landscapes or the encrusted exterior of an eroded structure.
Now largely dependent on using a walker to get around, Pindell employs two assistants to help her realize the labor-intensive process. “Her super-large-scale, heroic-size paintings compete with the boys’ in terms of ambition,” says Museum of Contemporary Art curator Naomi Beckwith, in reference to the work of such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Willem de Kooning. Their art dominated the galleries in the late 1960s and ’70s while Pindell was getting her master of fine arts degree at Yale and then working her way up the curatorial ranks at the Museum of Modern Art.
“All the cutting and stitching and gluing — it’s like she’s saying, ‘How hard do you want me to work to be noticed?’ ” says Bryan Davidson Blue of the Greenan Gallery, which has represented Pindell since 2014.
Seeking to get her work and that of her female colleagues the attention it deserved, Pindell became, in 1972, a founding member of A.I.R., the first women’s cooperative gallery in New York City. But it was not only as a female artist that she faced exclusion; she also felt out of place as an artist in her own African-American community.
“I was invited by the white feminist community to join them; whereas, the African-American community in general at the time was highly critical of abstract African-American artists,” she says. Even the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem initially dismissed her abstract paintings, she adds, suggesting she should go downtown and “show with the white boys” instead.
Feeling increasingly alienated from the art establishment and wanting more time to pursue her own art-making, in 1979 Pindell resigned from her associate curator position at the Museum of Modern Art to become a professor in the art department at Stony Brook University.
“I get home about 9 or so, but I am a night person,” she says, noting that her initial turn to abstraction was dictated, in part, by her late studio hours. “I don’t need natural light to do my work.” Also conducive to her working hours are the series of “Video Drawings” she began producing at the time by photographing images on television, mostly from sports broadcasts. Overlaying the blurry photos with squalls of hand-drawn arrows and numbers, she sees them as formal exercises in which the images’ structure is broken down by her underlining of the figures’ movement.
Almost immediately after Pindell’s arrival at Stony Brook, her imagery shifted. A car accident that left her with numerous injuries and short-term amnesia prompted her to make work that was more autobiographical, more overtly political. “I realized my own mortality and started including my own body in my work,” she says. “The abstractions were voiceless because I hadn’t known how to process my thoughts through my eyes and hands.”
In an attempt to preserve her memory, Pindell embarked on her “Autobiography” series, mixed-media collages punctuated with postcard segments from her far-flung travels to Africa, Japan and India, places whose colors and iconographies had seeped into her work. Gradually, tracings of her own silhouette were swept into the compositions’ whirl, often encompassed by words and phrases that speak to her encounters with issues of race, class and gender.
In her efforts to reconstruct her past, Pindell also made the video “Free, White and 21,” turning the camera on both herself and herself in the guise of a white woman. “In the tape, I was bristling at the women’s movement as well as the art world and some of the usual offensive encounters that were heaped on top of the racism of my profession,” she has explained about the seminal piece.
“For Howardena, the personal is political,” observes Beckwith, who worked with Virginia Museum of Fine Arts curator Valerie Cassel Oliver to organize the show. “She has always been a feminist, a pacifist dedicated to social justice, and she utilizes it as she sees fit.” Even Pindell’s painted dots and hole-punched chads, and later, her oval-shape canvases are a political statement of sorts.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Pindell’s career-long fascination with the circle developed from the memory of a childhood car ride with her family from her hometown of Philadelphia through northern Kentucky. Stopping at a restaurant for some refreshments, 8-year-old Pindell noticed a red circle on the bottom of her root beer mug and learned the mark was to distinguish the tableware from utensils used by white customers.
Pindell’s decades-long commitment to recasting the circle in her mind is as strong as her devotion to beauty. “I make things that look beautiful, even if the subject isn’t,” she explains. “If people see something positive — something beautifully made — then they are more open to what I want to say.”
Her efforts, she says, are boosted by the graduate students she teaches at Stony Brook. “In their struggling to know their craft, I learn about making my craft. It keeps me aware of any sloppiness.”
Some 50 years since her own school days, Pindell also has advice for her students:
“Don’t give up or destroy your work,” she says. The recommendation seems particularly appropriate from an artist who never throws anything away. “Pindell did much of her most innovative work by looking at what’s left over,” says Beckwith, underlining the relevance of Pindell’s working habits to the exhibition’s title, “What Remains to Be Seen.”
The show’s heading also hints at what’s to come. Despite her physical handicaps, Pindell shows no signs of slowing down, continuing her weekly commutes to Stony Brook and ruminating about future projects, including one involving a cast of her face replicated with a 3-D printer and inspired by learning her ancestry through the testing of her own DNA.
As demonstrated in this career-spanning survey, for Pindell, the connection between exploring her identity and her art-making has always been clear.
“There’s been so much attention given to the men of her generation and Pindell was there all along,” says Beckwirth. “She’s been working for decades, honing her art, massaging a message, and now she’s finally getting her due.”