On View At The Rose Art Museum Through May 19, 2019
Howardena Pindell has a complicated relationship with Boston. Before earning her MFA at Yale in 1967, she attended Boston University as an undergraduate art student. Initially, she was the only black student in the art department. And Boston was a racist, segregated city.
Unfortunately, as much as we like to proclaim our fair city’s progressive credentials, we’re still grappling with that legacy today. This past August, James Vaznis of the Boston Globe reported that Boston’s schools — and by extension, its neighborhoods — are more segregated today than they were twenty years ago:
And yet, Pindell keeps returning. Perhaps it is her resiliency, stubbornness, and commitment to her art, writing, and activism — all of which are recurring themes in her work — that keeps her coming back.
In Conversation: Pindell, Beckwith, and Oliver
Yesterday, Naomi Beckwith, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, co-curators of the Pindell retrospective, joined Howardena Pindell on stage at the Wasserman Cinematheque at Brandeis. Caitlin Rubin, Assistant Curator at the Rose Art Museum introduced the three women. Throughout the conversation, any time Pindell downplayed the importance of her work as a curator, artist, and activist, Beckwith and Oliver reminded us that she has repeatedly broken through barriers and defied people's expectations.
Pindell was one of the first black curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she worked from 1967 to 1979. Both Beckwith and Oliver credit her for paving the way for their own curatorial careers. While serving as a curator, Pindell also co-founded A.I.R. Gallery. Established in 1972, this cooperative gallery run by women to support women artists still operates today. In addition to breaking through these social barriers, Pindell redefined painting through her work, experimenting with new methods and materials, including glitter, talcum powder, thread, and perfume. By any measure, she is a trailblazer.
She is also a wonderful storyteller.
In yesterday's conversation, Pindell talked about growing up in Philadelphia, where her third-grade teacher noticed her talents and encouraged her parents to bring her to museums and artist studios. She reminisced about her father, a mathematician who kept meticulous records of odometer readings in a gridded travel journal. She talked about driving through Kentucky with her parents and stopping for a root beer. The glasses had a red circle on the bottom — indicating that they were reserved for black patrons. She also told us that she had to sew her own gowns to attend work-related events at the Museum of Modern Art because her salary was so low.
In 1979, Pindell left the Museum of Modern Art. That same year, Artists Space hosted an exhibition that included a series of works entitled The Nigger Drawings, by Don Newman, a white artist. Pindell was one of several artists involved with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, which criticized the decision by Artists Space to exhibit work with such a racist title. The protestors’ concerns were never addressed. Instead, they were accused of censoring art, the artist, and the gallery.
Unfortunately, cultural institutions have often perpetuated racism in America. Board members and members of the acquisitions committee are usually wealthy, white men. Museum directors and curators are predominately white, as are the artists they choose to exhibit. In Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, cultural critic Aruna D’Souza examines three major exhibitions that illustrate the history of art and race in America. It starts with the Whitney Biennial in 2017, details the protests surrounding Artists Space’s 1979 exhibition, and concludes with a look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, which did not include a single painting or sculpture by black artists.
Well before the Artists Spaces incident, Pindell was an activist, addressing the art world’s racial and gender biases in lectures and writings. In 1979, after leaving the Museum of Modern Art, she was in a terrible car accident. She survived but was left with a cracked skull and significant memory loss. Her voice was almost silenced that day, and so she chose to use her work, in addition to her lectures and writing, to amplify it. After her accident, the tone of her work shifts noticeably. She starts to directly address issues of racism, feminism, violence, slavery, and exploitation.
Retrospective: From Formalist Painting to Radical Art
The retrospective of Pindell’s work starts with a self-portrait completed as part of her studies at Boston University. Walking through the gallery, you next see paintings from her time at Yale, where she started to shift from formalist to abstract work. Her first entirely abstract canvases were layers upon layers of multi-colored dots — endless repetitions of the red circle on the bottom of the root beer glass.
At the end of the first gallery is one of Pindell’s templates made of hole-punched strips of manila folders that have been painted over time and time again. At some point in this hole-punching process, she started to keep the chads instead of discarding them. These were, in turn, stuck to graph paper, canvas, and mat board. Sometimes she wrote numbers on the chads, or right on graph paper, bringing to mind her father’s meticulous odometer journal. Later she would add more materials into the mix, scattering glitter or talcum onto her work and creating more and more layers to add depth and texture.
After her car accident, her work continued to explore these methods but it also became more personal and political. In 1980, eight months after her accident, she created a 12-minute video called Free, White and 21. In the video, she recounts her own experiences of racism and sexism. She also plays the role of a white woman, dismissing her lived experiences. The video debuted at the A.I.R. Gallery, which was not immune from Pindell’s criticism of white feminism, which so often dismisses the experiences of women of color.
Other pieces in this gallery include large works constructed from strips of canvas sewn together and collaged with images, words, chads, and other materials. In her Autobiography series, you can see the outline of her body on the canvas surrounded by words and phrases, including "If you succeed we will destroy you" and "Our laws and police protect us not you." Many of these pieces were completed in the early 1980s, but they are every bit as relevant today, bringing to mind the Black Lives Matter movement.
In later works, the colors are bright and cheerful even though the canvas has been ripped apart and stitched back together. They seem a lot like the artist, who has experienced countless traumas — physical and emotional — and yet keeps moving forward.
Bringing It All Together
Yesterday's visit to the Rose was part of the #museumswithanulfo project, which was started by my friend Anulfo Baez after the disastrous 2016 presidential election. Each week, he visits a museum with a friend to talk about art, life and how to move forward in a world where hatred, bigotry, racism, and misogyny are not only tolerated but championed by the President of the United States.
We’ve been getting together at museums since we first argued about Gabriel Orozco’s “Empty Shoe Box” on Twitter in 2011. Yesterday, as so often happens on these trips, we ran into two women Anulfo knows from the Boston art scene, Magda Fernandez and Dell Hamilton.
Magda is an award-winning experimental video artist. Born in Cuba, her work addresses the role her ancestors played in the slave trade and the colonization of Cuba. Her work was recently exhibited in Nine Moments for Now at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard University, which was curated by Dell. In addition to being an independent curator, Dell is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Her first solo show, All Languages Welcomed Here, is on exhibit at Salem State University through February 8.
Standing outside of the Rose, we started unpacking the lessons of the day. We talked about the importance of representation in the art world, which is still overwhelmingly white. We talked about the archive of knowledge, experience, and art that Pindell shared with us. We talked about the barriers she has broken through over the course of her career and the work still to be done. We talked about Howardena Pindell as a role model — kind, gracious, funny, determined, and mad as hell.
And with that, we got back to work.