It’s been quite a year for Howardena Pindell.
Known for making thought-provoking art and building spaces for women of color to express themselves on their own terms, Pindell is celebrating her 40th year as a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Art, where she she teaches painting and conceptual drawing. Earlier this year, Pindell received the 2019 Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement by the College Art Association. It it didn’t stop there.
In the past several months, Pindell received the George Wittenborn Award for What Remains to Be Seen, best art book of 2018. This past weekend, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, MD. And this fall, Pindell will be honored by The Smithsonian Museum with the 2019 Archives of American Art Medal.
Pindell’s first major museum retrospective, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen, first opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) in April 2018, and is currently at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, through May 19, 2019. What Remains to Be Seen is a chronological progression of Pindell’s early paintings to a selection of her mixed media works. Co-curated by MCAs Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, the 100-work exhibit has been reviewed widely across the art community and mainstream media. Wall Street Journal writer James Panero described Pindell as “…a round peg in a square hole. Enigmatic at times, didactic at others, she is an innovative abstractionist who also works in photography and video.”
“Those of us at Stony Brook and inside the art world have always known how important Howardena is, to young artists and her peers,” says Professor Katy Siegel, Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art. “In recent years, her star has shined even brighter, culminating in her brilliant retrospective, which has made her central place in history visible to everyone.”
Pindell graduated with an MFA from Yale University in 1967, subsequently applying for numerous teaching positions. She was rejected by all but one — a very haughty, private girls’ school in Philadelphia that offered a meager salary and boarding, although she would have had to live in the dorms with the students. Pindell took a chance and came to New York, and thanks to the kindness of a good friend’s friend who took her in, lived rent-free until she landed a job. She soon became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and discovered the tremendous popularity of abstract art. At MoMA, she rose through the ranks and eventually became associate curator in the Prints and Drawings Department.
Much of Pindell’s abstract art features one particular shape: the circle. When she was young, she and her father went on a road trip through Kentucky, stopping at a root beer stand where every mug had a red circle on the bottom. When she asked her father what the red circles meant, he explained that black people were treated differently; in that part of the country, they could not use the same utensils as white people.
“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,” she said.
In 1979, the SoHo alternative gallery Artists Space put on an exhibition by white artist Donald Newman, the title of which included a very offensive racial slur. Pindell wrote letters to Artists Space, and protested with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, to no avail. “I found that I did not take the same position as people that were part of the mainstream art world,” she says. The second time we [protested], a friend of the gallery director said to us, ‘How dare you come down here and tell us what to do? This is a white neighborhood.’” Pindell left MoMA soon after, deciding to separate herself from the museum world and focus more on her own art — and teaching.
Later that year, Pindell joined Stony Brook’s Department of Art, particularly interested in the University’s emphasis on science, given her father was a mathematician. She recalls her father writing numbers in a book that looked like graph paper; a reason she began incorporating numbers into her work. “I saw writing numbers as drawing,” she recalls.
Only a few months after starting her career at Stony Brook, Pindell was involved in a car crash that resulted in short-term amnesia. She recalled driving to the University with the chair of the art department and an art critic who was attending; Pindell was sitting sideways in the back seat. “In those days, there were no seatbelts in the back seats of cars. I injured my hip, making one leg higher than the other. I had a concussion, and still have a dent in my head.” To help deal with her memory loss, Pindell started using her art as a way to archive her history and important events in her life. This new discipline eventually widened to include art centered around political activism.
Pindell’s iconic video, “Free, White and 21” was made only eight months after her accident. The video, a personal recollection of her experiences with racism and sexism, features Pindell portraying a dual role as herself, and the imperious White Woman who chastises Pindell after each heartfelt recollection presented by the artist. In a powerful moment, Pindell silently wraps her head with gauze, symbolic of both the the head injury she recently suffered, and the oppression she continued to face. Freeing herself of the bandages was a statement of her determination to speak out. Nearly 40 years later, the video remains very timely in terms of women speaking out in support of equity issues and movements like #MeToo.
As a teacher, Pindell’s work has benefited creatively from the relationships she draws upon with students and the experiences they go through in the real world. She also feels that teaching keeps her mind fresh, as she’s explaining her process. “You can’t really get stagnant as an artist when you’re teaching,” she says. “You have to be on your toes. I’m handicapped, but I get around to everyone. I talk to them, and I don’t try to invade their space.”
While Pindell is teaching undergraduate courses this semester, she enjoys teaching at all levels. “I like to see the beginners learn new things, and our more advanced students go through the process of developing their projects, which are self-initiated. It’s nice to see them become more professional.” Stony Brook’s three-year graduate program offers a unique component where students learn to teach, an oft-beneficial addition to graduates’ resumes.
Like many artists, Pindell sometimes faces a creative block, turning her work to the wall or covering it so she doesn’t have to look at it for awhile. “One thing I suggest for our graduate students, especially if they feel like they’re hitting a wall, is to read a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron,” she says. “It was originally written for writers with writer’s block, but it works very well for artists. I found that when I read it, I started getting so many ideas that I couldn’t keep up! It’s a book I would recommend to both writers and visual artists.”
For students who want to follow in Pindell’s footsteps given her long and illustrious career, Pindell’s advice is simple: don’t give up. “I’ve had dealers who have stolen my work, damaged my work, didn’t pay me. It took a long time to get where I am today, and I’m grateful. Students should persevere and do the best they can.”
What comes next for Pindell remains to be seen.
— Rachel Rodriguez