Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
February 24-May 20, 2018
Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen is the first major survey of the multidisciplinary artist and activist Howardena Pindell (American, b. 1943). (1) The exhibition (co-curated by Naomi Beckwith, of the MCA Chicago, and Valerie Cassel Oliver, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) presents a wide spectrum of artwork that demonstrates the inseparability of the formal, social and political dimensions of Pindell's prolific five-decade career. (2) While the underlying organization of the exhibition is chronological, Pindell's own investment in personal and collective memory resists such an ordered reading of her work. The time mapped out in What Remains to be Seen is in many ways nonlinear, creating instead an experience that is neither horizontal nor vertical but circular. This is both literal, in Pindell's own self-proclaimed obsession with the circle, and metaphorical, through Beckwith and Oliver's methods of curating.
Pindell studied painting at Boston University as an undergraduate and earned her MFA from Yale in 1967. After her schooling, she worked as an associate curator in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until 1979. That same year, she took a teaching job at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she continues to teach as a full professor. The exhibition opened with a small collection of her early works in a section entitled "1966-79: Experiments in Form." Many of the works from this period use blue-lined graph paper and hole-punches. In Untitled (1969) (fig. 1), graph paper offers a geometric ground that Pindell has washed over in an arresting pink. This surface cradles a network of orange and light green circles and ovals that oscillate between depth and flatness. The vibrancy of this work stands in contrast to the color palette Pindell would become known for: thickly applied whites, light pinks, and purples.
That palette, and a visceral sense of materiality, are both evident in Untitled #20 (1978), the final work in the first gallery (fig. 2). Notably, Untitled #20 is made from traditionally feminine-coded materials associated with craft and domesticity. Conventions of abstract and minimalist art, like the grid, are imbued with the popular aesthetics of second-wave feminism: the use of needle and thread, glitter, perfume, and talcum powder. This gallery demonstrates Pindell's interest in materiality and introduces the viewer to an artistic language that reappears throughout the exhibition. However, Pindell's language is not solely about aesthetics; she uses a formalist and conceptualist vocabulary with political urgency that carries into our current moment.
Archival materials are presented alongside Pindell's artworks, including the stencils she used to spray-paint small circles in bulk across canvas. These curatorial gestures emphasize that the process, time, and artistic labor are just as important as the final product. Many of her early works utilize numbering as a form of mark-making. Her use of standardized hole punches mounted to graph paper, as in Untitled #58 (1974) (fig. 3), speaks to corporatized aesthetics and demonstrates an artistic impulse to locate and dislocate a sense of order. Numbers are meticulously hand-written on each hole-punch and range from one into the thousands. Of this practice, Pindell says, "I see it as drawing. I'm not necessarily seeing it as having anything to do with critical thinking or anything rational." (3) Pindell's intuition is demonstrated in these works, as some follow a strict chronological order while others have no identifiable sequence. What is consistent, however, is the reliance on the organic circle and geometric grid to communicate an ongoing dialectic between order and chaos.
While the exhibit evokes a circular sense of time, the year 1979 serves as its epicenter--a point around which Pindell's past, present, and future artistic production revolves. For the artist, the year marks a self-proclaimed turning point in her life in which two significant events took place. First, she left her position at MoMA and began teaching at SUNY Stony Brook, a career change which signaled her departure from working in museums and a move into academia. Second, shortly after her arrival at the Stony Brook campus, she was involved in a devastating car accident that left her with short-term amnesia. After these events, Pindell explored themes of memory and autobiography more explicitly in her work. Her experiences in this period also influenced her work as an activist, such as the key role she played in the protest against Artist Space's 1979 Donald Newman exhibition Nigger Drawings. (4) With these events in mind, the exhibition follows its survey of her pre-1979 work with a news-and-culture retrospective of 1979, and a section dedicated to her post-1979 artistic production.
Beckwith and Oliver's choice to centralize the year 1979 is a strategic decision that emphasizes the significance of Pindell's work on multiple scales. The retrospective in the middle of the exhibition highlights key historical and cultural moments: Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK, The Clash released London Calling, and the Iranian Revolution broke out--among other notable events. Beckwith and Oliver do not offer this timeline as a means of demonstrating cause-and-effect in Pindell's work, but rather to support a historiography in which 1979 marks the cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. (5) By situating Pindell within this sociopolitical context, one can understand the larger stakes of the artist's move from conceptual and post-minimalist artwork to black feminist theory and identity politics.
In making the seminal Free, White, and 21 (1980) (fig. 4), Pindell has said that she found her voice. (6) In the video, she offers autobiographical accounts of her experiences of racism both inside and outside the art world. While at times personal, the accounts described align with the findings in Pindell's later "Art World Surveys," in which she researched the demographics of artists represented in New York museums and commercial galleries and presented them at Hunter College's "Agendas for Survival" conference in 1987. (7) Pindell's vocalization of racism puts on display the oppressive effects of white supremacy and highlights the dismissal(s) and exclusion(s) she withstood and withstands as an African American female artist, particularly at the hands of white second-wave feminists. Rather than directly addressing the viewer, she recalls these memories to another character, a white woman identified only as "Blond Antagonist" (played by Pindell in whiteface). The Blond Antagonist hears these accounts but doesn't listen. Instead, her response is the same each time, repeating to Pindell with disbelief and judgment, "You know you really must be paranoid."
This feeling of paranoia echoes Pindell's description of her post-1979 production, in part, as having to do with the process of healing and recovering after her accident. She has discussed her recovery as a means of trying to "put her brain back together." (8) Memory: Future (1980-81) (fig. 5) displays such an attempt, mixing fragments of postcards and photographs into the cakey mix of light blue and white pigments and hole punches atop a canvas that has been cut apart and resutured together. This foreshadows her later works, such as those in her ongoing Autobiography (1982-) series (fig. 6), which comprises much of the second half of the exhibition. Pindell uses photocollage to make work about sociopolitical crises such as the AIDS epidemic, hunger, and homelessness. Coupled with her use of grid and circle, these later works make clear that Pindell's interest in repetition is not only about remembering, but the risk of forgetting: history, trauma, and figures who often go unseen in mainstream society.
In their evocative introduction to the exhibition catalog, Beckwith and Oliver observe, "The presentation and institutional misrepresentation of certain bodies have been central to Pindell's work as a black feminist activist seeking to rectify the art world's missed opportunities." (9) Indeed, the curators follow this trajectory, not only by recuperating Pindell's artistic legacy, but also by demonstrating the way in which abstract art can be mobilized to social and political ends. The final room at the MCA Chicago displayed Pindell's most recent works, which include spiral abstract forms painted and collaged on paper. These works are titled after astronomical phenomena and weather patterns, alluding to a sense of deep space and time. Utilizing glitter, vibrant colors, and dustings of hole-punched paper, works such as Night Flight (2015-16) (fig. 7) echo and retrace Pindell's early abstract compositions. What Remains to be Seen emphasizes the way in which Pindell's work emphasizes memory, the nuances of which became apparent only after walking through its entirety and then circling through it once more.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
(1.) The exhibition was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, February 24-May 20, 2018, and is slated to be shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond August 25November, 2018, and The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, January 24-June 16, 2019.
(2.) The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog: Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassell Oliver, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen (New York: Prestel, 2018). There is also a dedicated website, complete with reproductions of every work in the exhibition, archival photographs, and a digital archive of the Howardena Pindell Papers at pindell.mcachicago.org/.
(3.) Howardena Pindell, "Howardena Pindell in conversation with Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver" (museum program, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Illinois, February 24, 2018).
(4.) This protest, and Pindell's leading role, is the subject of one case study in Aruna D'Souza's recent book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (Badlands, 2018).
(5.) Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, "Opening Thoughts," Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen (New York: Prestel, 2018), 22.
(7.) Pindell's research was presented on June 28, 1987 at the Agendas for Survival Conference at Hunter College. The papers "Statistics, Testimony, and Supporting Documentation" and her later "Commentary and Update of Gallery and Museum Statistics, 1986-1997" are available on the exhibition website at pindell.mcachicago.org/art-worldsurveys/. The website includes an interactive element in which users can submit their own museum and gallery survey, a testament to the way in which the museum is in conversation with current activist movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.
(8.) Howardena Pindell, "Howardena Pindell in conversation with Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver" (museum program, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Illinois, February 24, 2018).
(9.) Beckwith and Oliver, "Opening Thoughts," 27.
Caption: Figure 1, above. Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1969, ink, crayon, and cray-pas on graph paper, 17 x 21 1/2 in (43.2 x 54.6 cm). (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Caption: Figure 2 top right. Howardena Pindell, Untitled #20 (Dutch Wives Circled and Squared) (detail), 1978, mixed media on canvas, 86 x 110 in. (218.4 x 279.4 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Albert A. Robin by exchange. (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Caption: Figure 3, bottom right. Howardena Pindell, Untitled #58, 1974, mixed media on board, 5 x 8 in. (12.7 x 20.3 cm). Collection of James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach, New York. (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Caption: Figure 4, left. Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, U-matic (color, sound), 12 min., 15 sec. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Garth Greenan and Bryan Davidson Blue. (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Caption: Figure 5, above. Howardena Pindell, Memory: Future, 1980-81, mixed media on canvas, 83 x 116 1/2 in. (210.8 x 295.9 cm). (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Caption: Figure 6, left. Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Scapegoat, 1990, acrylic, tempera, oil stick, and polymer photo transfer on canvas, 76 1/2 x 139 1/2 in. (194.3 x 354.3 cm). The Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum Purchase. (Photo: Nathan Keay, [C] MCA Chicago)
Caption: Figure 7, above. Howardena Pindell, Night Flight, 2015-16, mixed media on canvas, 75 x 63 in. (190.5 x 160 cm). (Photo: courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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