50 Years of Art and Activism: An Interview with Howardena Pindell

Osei Bonsu interviews the artist about the evolution of her thinking

Beginning her artistic practice as an academically trained figurative painter in the 1960s, Howardena Pindell’s turn towards abstraction was a challenge to the formalist tradition of Minimalism. While working in the curatorial ranks of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s, Pindell began transforming hole-punched temples of cardstock and manila envelopes into multicoloured constellations of mystifying depth and complexity. In 1979, however, Pindell’s practice took a sharply political turn following a series of traumatic events that changed her approach to art. Pindell began to confront historical events and address ethical issues through text and representational elements. As a woman of colour who experienced the pervasive institutional racism of the art world and the women’s movement from the inside, her autobiographical works confronted issues of genocide, HIV/AIDS and human and civil rights from a boldly critical standpoint. As the current far-right and nationalist grip on US politics strengthens, Pindell remains committed to making art that has the capacity to trigger historical memory – and to incite change. 

Howardena Pindell, 2017. Courtesy and photograph: Katherine McMahon 

Osei Bonsu Your training in figurative painting began as an undergraduate at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, after which you enrolled on Yale University School of Art’s renowned MFA programme, graduating in 1967. How would you describe your college experience?

Howardena Pindell I was a student when John F. Kennedy was president [1961–63], but Boston was still a very racist city: you could be told to leave a restaurant because they wouldn’t serve you. Despite not being an easy place to live, the education was excellent, especially in terms of traditional figurative painting. When I got into Yale, however, some of my tutors at Boston were so mad that they stopped talking to me because they knew I would be exposed to a much broader range of visual ideas. Yale had a very active visiting-artist programme and we met a number of significant people, including the German-American painter Richard Linder, who you don’t hear much about these days. I also had a somewhat adversarial meeting with Helen Frankenthaler because she didn’t like the fact that I was making figurative work.

In addition to expanding my ideas about art, Yale led me to go into museum work after I graduated. While I was studying there, I worked as an assistant for the university’s Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of American decorative arts and having that experience on my résumé meant I was able to get a job at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] in New York. So, I had this strange mixed training in both academic and experimental painting. Then, through my job at MoMA, I was able to access the galleries outside of opening hours. It was like a visual library where I could see works by artists I admired – Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Odilon Redon.

OB You moved to New York in the late 1960s, amidst the fervour of anti-war demonstrations and the civil-rights and feminist movements. How was your position as a curator at MoMA impacted by the political environment at the time?

HP I was fortunate to meet my mentor, Lucy Lippard, in the very first department I worked for: International and National Circulating Exhibitions. I helped her organize an exhibition and she became interested in me as an artist and mentored me in the women’s movement. Not many women of colour were part of the movement, but there were some groups like ‘Where We At’ Black Women Artists, Inc. – a collective affiliated with the Black Arts Movement. I was from Philadelphia, not New York, and people really didn’t know me, so I wasn’t included in those groups. In fact, I ran into some hostility within the black arts community. There was this feeling that, since I was working at MoMA, I had the power to open doors, to get people’s work into the collection, but that wasn’t the case at all. Everything shown to the committee for possible acquisition was controlled by the chief curator. As associate curator and, later, as acting director of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books – until I resigned in 1979 – I had the opportunity to organize ‘Projects: Chuck Close/Liliana Porter’ (1973) and ‘Projects: Charles Simonds/Mary Miss’ (1976).

Howardena Pindell, Autobiograph: The Search (Chrysalis/Meditation, Positive/Negative), 1988–89, mixed media on canvas, 1.8 × 2.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

OB While you were still working at the museum, you developed an interest in using everyday materials in a non-traditional way in your art. What was the impetus behind this?

HP Well, you know, it’s hard to explain. My work as an artist was entirely separate from my museum career. I would go to the frame shop and ask for permission to take things from the trash. When they cut a mount for an artwork, for instance, it created a beautiful bevelled inside section that they usually just threw away. My salary was so low that I would sew my own clothes, which meant I had a lot of threads at home. So, I started making grids of thread in the negative spaces of these card ‘windows’. Then, for some reason, I began sprinkling them with the little paper circles that you find left over in a regular hole-puncher, numbering them with a pen.

One thing I clearly remember is that, when I made the transition away from figurative painting, I became very interested in acrylic spray. I would make templates from strips of oak tag, cutting them out and gluing them together. The art dealer Carl Solway came to visit my studio and saw that I had the remnants: I hadn’t thrown them out. He asked me: ‘How many of those circles do you have?’ So, I started numbering them and then sprinkling them onto the mounts. Gradually, I began doing drawings that I would punch out then reassemble. I also started driving nails into the edges so that the works became more viscerally tactile, even though they were works on paper. I put the coloured punch-outs onto the spray paintings and added the dots to the paint to create a heavily layered texture.

OB You used so many paper dots that, eventually, you stopped counting them and invented the numbers instead. Were you interested in conceptual art’s systems of numbering and measuring at the time? 

HP My father was a mathematician and, as a child, I would see him writing numbers in books of graph paper. I was terrible at mathematics, but I loved drawing numbers. For me, it was about the drawing rather than the calculation. I don’t know how conscious I was of conceptual art at that time, but I did see an exhibition of Eva Hesse’s latex pieces, made shortly before she died in 1970, and I loved their patina. When I created my works with the numbers, I used archival spray, but I didn’t like the rubbery look of it, so I started putting baby powder on the surface to soften the visual impression.

OB You have experienced racism in the art world, both as a curator and as an artist. Do you think things have changed over the course of your career?

HP I’ve seen changes because I have observed the art world not only as an artist and curator, but also as someone who has served on panels that allocated funds to public institutions. Many white institutions would be able to rely on a guaranteed amount of funding, while institutions of colour would have to go through elaborate hoops year after year to get support. I was also on the selection panel for a public art commission supported by the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] and, when I began presenting the work of the African-American artist Mel Edwards, the chairman of the committee stood up and said: ‘No, no! We won’t have any of that!’ He didn’t even want me to nominate a black artist: that was pretty discouraging.

Howardena Pindell, Songlines: Cosmos (detail), 2017, mixed media on canvas, 1.5 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

OB In 1979, you led a group of artists and activists who spoke out against the infamous show by Donald Newman entitled ‘Nigger Drawings’ at Artists Space, New York. What was your initial response to the exhibition?

HP When you called the gallery to ask about the show, they would say: ‘The drawings are in charcoal, charcoal is black and black means “nigger”.’ This led to an uprising! We formed an interracial group – Lucy [Lippard] was part of it, as was the artist David Hammons – made banners and went to Artists Space to confront the organizers, but they called the police on us and locked us out. When we eventually got inside, it seemed Artists Space had used funding they had been given for community outreach projects to bring in a show of art from Scotland. One of the supporters of the gallery director – a young woman who I assume was an artist – said to us: ‘How dare you come down here and tell us what to do? This is a white neighbourhood!’ That shows you what the attitude of the art world was at the time. Ironically, people in the New York art world did not see the work as disrespectful: they saw our negative opinion about a white artist as a form of censorship. At that point, I started writing about issues of censorship as well as epidermal racism within the art world.

OB That same year, you resigned from MoMA in response to the art world’s institutional racism and you were also involved in a serious car accident.

HP March 1979 was the turning point. After the ‘Nigger Drawings’ episode, I was criticized within the white art world for censoring Newman’s work: at one point, someone even called me the art-world equivalent of Jesse Helms – a particularly obnoxious politician. At around that time, congress removed visual arts from NEA funding, which became a problem because the corporate world stepped in, and they had very different standards: art was entertainment for them. I decided that I was going to leave MoMA and it was suggested that I apply for a teaching job at Stony Brook University, New York. I’ve now been there for 40 years.

When I first started at Stony Brook, the head of the fine art department lived near me, so he would drive me to work. One day, on the way to a university exhibition, another driver accidentally drove right across the central reservation into oncoming traffic and hit us on the diagonal. It was pretty unpleasant. I have a dented scull and a dislocated hip; one leg is now higher than the other. I probably would have had far worse injuries but, fortunately, I was wearing a very thick woollen scarf that a friend had knitted for me, which protected my skull from breaking. It was an agonizing time because, with head injuries, your personality often changes and you become more easily irritated at things. I’m still impaired because of the amnesia that came with it, but I’m still working. I use a walker because some of the medicines I take conflict with the dent in my skull, so I get dizzy. The good thing about the walker is that I can sit down whenever I want: I try to look at things positively!

OB After the accident, your works became decidedly more political, and you began to move away from abstraction to embrace text and representational elements. 

HP I decided to make works that were autobiographical as well as addressing wider issues. I thought: ‘You never know when you’re going to wake up dead!’ I wanted to speak out against racism in America and in the art world. I started lying down on the canvas and tracing around myself, cutting my figure out and resewing it into the canvas. I had done a fair amount of travelling when I was working at MoMA, including to India. I’d heard about how, in certain traditions, widows are burnt alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Apparently, ancient religions did not instruct this – saying only that the women should walk around the pyre – yet, the wives still gave up their lives. Before this act of suicide, they would leave a handprint on the temple wall.

I began to use hands in my work because they have carried such significance throughout history. When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in the 15th century, he instigated a system whereby the hands of indigenous peoples would purportedly be cut off if they didn’t bring regular tributes of gold; in the 9th-century Belgian Congo, the hands of slaves were severed if they refused to work on the rubber plantations; while, in ancient Egypt, they would keep a tally of the war dead by cutting off hands. I started doing more research: I wanted to express my opinions in my work and to encourage people to think about things they either didn’t know or didn’t want to contemplate. I also wanted my work to engage with colour because I had taken Josef Albers’s ‘Interaction of Colour’ course at Yale, which really changed my life and the way I teach. The works I made following my accident express my indignation about histories that have been lost or covered up. I became far more aggressive about my opinions and was able to translate that passion into visual form – something which continues to this day!

Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Swimming, 1975, chromogenic print, 20 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

OB Many works from your ‘Autobiography’ series, beginning in 1982, use texts and documents lifted from civil-rights legislature and political-protest movements. Why did you decide to integrate text into your work?

HP Text became important because I wanted people to clearly understand what I was saying. One of my first text pieces was Autobiography: Air/CS560 (1988), which refers to a gas that was used during the Vietnam War. It would cause people to choke on their own vomit and die; it could also trigger foetal abortion. That was a work about people rising up against totalitarian governments. I also made two large-scale pieces with text, Autobiography: Scapegoat (1990) and Autobiography: The Search (Chrysalis/Meditation, Positive/Negative) (1988–89). At the time, my work was panned for being ‘too obvious’ – critics wanted there to be some mystery. But I didn’t think there should be anything mysterious about genocide. I continue to use text in my current work, but my practice has two heads: my abstract works are about beauty and finding a peaceful place to put my thinking; my more figurative pieces address political issues. I need that mental balance.

OB After 1979, there was another shift in your work – from the use of rectangular forms to circular or irregular ones. You’ve spoken about this as having to do with ‘some internal intuition of nature’. Do you see these paintings as a synthesis of that idea? 

HP Between 1981 and 1982, I lived in Japan for seven months on an artist’s grant. The experience was hugely influential: I was very taken by traditional Japanese culture and the beauty of nature there. When I left Japan, I started to use more oval or asymmetrical forms and left behind the rectangle – although I still used it for some of the protest works. Autobiography: Japan (Hiroshima Disguised) (1982), which includes ten ovals of different sizes, was prompted by a visit I made to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on the anniversary of the bombings, which took place in August 1945. At the time, in the US, we were not really told about the devastation we had caused. It disturbed me to see the true horror of it: wax figures of people with their skin shredded and hanging off; a moat dedicated to people who had jumped into the water and boiled to death. I was deeply moved by what I saw, and created these asymmetrical ovals, which I cut out then sewed together and covered with transfer images. I added lots of crystal glitter to represent broken glass and things being burned to a powdery ash.

OB You also have a keen interest in ethnic textiles and indigenous forms of marking. What influence did your extensive travels have on your process as well as your politics?

HP I had my DNA analysed and found out that I have an amazing combination of Zulu, Portuguese, Indian, Inuit and Swedish ancestry. It changed my thinking, seeing this big mishmash of cultures, since I had often wondered if my art was a way of communing with my ancestors. Travelling in Africa also influenced me. I went there three times – to South Africa, Egypt and Ghana – and was particularly inspired by a visit to the cultural centre in Kumasi [Ghana] where you could watch people weaving traditional Kente cloth. At around the same time, in 1972, MoMA held the show ‘African Textiles and Decorative Arts’. Africa was one of the hardest places to travel – in 1973, at least – because of the attitudes towards women; we just weren’t taken seriously. I went with the African-American curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who was then working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I think we would have seen more had we been men. When I travelled in southern India, I didn’t run into those same kinds of issues, although there was a strong caste system and some temples wouldn’t allow us to enter.

In terms of visual culture, though, the trip that influenced me the most was the time I spent living in Japan. I did run into some resistance as a black woman: I remember going to a restaurant at the base of Mount Fuji and they put cigarettes in my food. But I had to just put on my thick skin and take in as much as I could: the amazing dry gardens, the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima and the Kabuki plays where you might see a beautiful lime-green silk robe with a light-lavender lining. There was something about that Japanese visual experience which changed my thinking.

Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Game Show, 1974–75, chromogenic print, 13 × 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

OB In 1973, you started your ‘Video Drawings’ series as a means of deconstructing images of authority. Given the pervasive impact of the televisual on today’s political systems, how do you perceive the renewed relevance of these works?

HP Originally, I started the series because I was straining my eyes from numbering all the tiny paper dots in my earlier works. Someone suggested I should look at something at a distance that was in motion. I had two televisions – one black and white and one colour. I bought acetate and ink and started putting vectors and numbers on the surfaces: the static electricity caused the acetate to stick to the screen. Then, I took pictures of the television using slide film. I captured explosions of white phosphorus, the violence and atrocities from the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the grotesque weaponry we used. I went from playing with aesthetics – mostly sports images – to creating the ‘War’ series in 1988.

OB In your film Free, White and 21 (1980), you address the racism you experienced as a young black woman in the US. How has your personal politics informed your work?

HP Free, White and 21 was a response to the women’s movement. Many women of colour didn’t want to get involved because the attitude was: ‘We’re white and we’re in charge here.’ Some of the women would tell me to back off because I brought up issues of race and tried to engage them in that conversation. If there was a women’s protest, I would get asked to join them on the picket line, but I rarely went because I couldn’t afford to lose my job. Many of these women had husbands, but I was financially responsible for myself. I was part of a group that unionized MoMA and went on strike twice because I believed in parity of salaries. In Free, White and 21, I play two parts: a resistant white woman in sunglasses and a black woman, myself. I had the head injury from the accident – that’s why I wrap my head in bandages in the video. It was really a healing piece, something that I needed to do.

In our present time, I feel driven to make more works like Free, White and 21. It’s scary how much President Trump has polarized people: those on the margins of society have either become more progressive or more fascistic. Fortunately, Trump is not interested in culture, which has enabled artists to continue making political work. In Nazi-era Germany, Adolf Hitler’s regime famously targeted artists, stole important works from Jewish families and created the category of ‘degenerate art’ that they sought to eradicate. At the moment, artists in the US are still able to do what they want – although, if someone does catch Trump’s attention, I fear he will start attacking artists as well.

Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Basketball, 1975, chromogenic print, 20 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

OB Has your current mood infiltrated the new body of work you’re producing?

HP It has sparked my interest in making a new piece about lynching and the civil-rights movement. There’s also a large-scale painting I’m working on that references Columbus and the amputation of hands; it’s 2.4 × 2.7 metres and filled with hands cut out of rice paper and wove paper. On top of that, there will be text and, at the base of the painting, there will be a bucket of stage blood and silicon hands, which have already been cast. A lot of the pieces I’m doing now are black and grey. I have another painting planned that will deal with the burning of black towns – such as the prosperous neighbourhood of Greenwood in Oklahoma, referred to as ‘Black Wall Street’, where white mobs destroyed African-American businesses during the Tulsa race riots of 1921 – or families driven off their farmland by white supremacists, including the women’s and civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. I think it’s important to remember these historic atrocities because Trump has infected the country and made people feel they have the right to do and say whatever they want. Just this year, three black churches were burned down in Louisiana. Because of its political content, I know that certain institutions in the US may never show my work: some of them may even agree with Trump. But I want to make people aware of the past and remind them that we really don’t want to repeat it. 

Howardena Pindell is an artist based in New York, USA. This year, she had a solo show at Rose Art Museum, Waltham, USA. From 36 October, her work is included in the Spotlight section of Frieze Masters in Regent’s Park, London, with Garth Greenan Gallery.

Main image: Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Memory Work’.

Osei Bonsu is a curator and writer based in London, UK, and Paris, France. He is a contributing editor of frieze.

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