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Howardena Pindell

Lives and works in New York
B. 1943

Howardena Pindell’s profoundly personal and politically charged work delivers a dynamic materiality to the canons of painting – serving as much as a diaristic account of her own biography as a means to interrogate broader issues of social justice. With a practice spanning over five decades and encompassing a diverse range of mediums – including painting, collage, drawing and film – Pindell lends visceral form to a rigorous intellectual inquiry of the given subject.

Born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a middle-class African American family, Pindell initially engaged with painting through figuration, attaining her BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. That same year, she relocated to New York and commenced a 12-year tenure as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, during which she was exposed to a wide variety of artistic expressions, primarily Abstract Expressionism, which catalysed a shift in her painterly lexicon towards pure abstraction.

Growing up amidst segregation and coming of age during the civil rights movement, Pindell cites a profound childhood memory as the impetus behind one of the most enduring motifs in her body of work. When she was eight years old, during a family trip to northern Kentucky, her father stopped the car at a roadside root beer stand. Pindell recalls noticing red circles at the bottom of their cups, later learning that they were used to differentiate the utensils designated for Black customers. This formative encounter with Jim Crow segregation laws profoundly influenced Pindell’s artistic practice, manifesting in her work through ubiquitous variations of the circular motif – ellipses, perforations, spray-painted dots and hole punches. Utilising the motif’s endless possibilities in diverse and iterative ways, the circle embodied complex and encoded import. Initially igniting trauma, it became a focal point of artistic exploration, enabling Pindell to reorient its meaning. As the artist expressed, she endeavoured ‘to change the circle in my mind […] to take the sting out of the [memory].’

In the late 1960s, Pindell embarked on her seminal series of abstract ‘Untitled’ paintings – a career-long endeavour in which the motif is atomised and accrued, rendered as stipples of light and colour that evoke interstellar infinities. In early ‘Untitled’ works, she explored the circle through painted ellipses rendered in polychromatic hues on graph paper. Soon after, while working as a curatorial assistant in MoMA’s Department of Prints and Drawings, Pindell pioneered an innovative technique using a humble piece of office stationery: the hole punch. Employing this tool to create precise punctuations in cardstock or manila filing folders, she crafted stencils through which she spray-painted uniform dots onto unstretched canvas, resulting in spectral, generative compositions of pixelated speckles. She subsequently began incorporating the hole-punched refuse as a primary medium, affixing and layering the tiny paper discs onto gridded canvases – counterbalancing the inherent order of the planar grid with dense geometric constellations. To these works she often applied embellishments, incorporating extruded acrylic paint, glitter, thread, talcum powder and perfume to invoke a sensory as well as visual interplay. After a studio visit from the gallerist Carl Solway, who inquired about the number of circles contained within each canvas, Pindell took to painstakingly inscribing numbers onto each punched or painted dot.

In 1979, Pindell experienced a life-altering event when she was involved in a near-fatal car accident in which she sustained head trauma and partial memory loss. To aid in her rehabilitation and as a means of catharsis during a difficult period of recovery, the artist worked to consolidate fragments of her past. This effort initiated her series of ‘Autobiography’ works in 1980 – mixed media paintings and works on paper for which she assiduously collected postcards and photographs from decades of her life – mementoes from travels and vestiges of a past self which assumed renewed resonance. Pindell cut them into strips and arranged them into compositions that integrated the photographic fragments with layers of acrylic paint and mixed media, departing from the standard square format and ordered gridding of her ‘Untitled’ works to explore ovoid and irregular-shaped canvases that trace the silhouette of Pindell’s body. Subsequent iterations of the ‘Autobiography’ series (1980–2005) pay homage to her sojourns through India, Africa and Japan, broadening the scope from her embodied experiences to an extensive cross-cultural study in which discursive patterns emerge that speak to the artist’s engagements with tradition, spirituality and ritual.

Pindell developed an axiom for the ‘Autobiography’ series: ‘You never know. You may wake up dead.’ From this arose another personal declaration: ‘I could have died – that’s when I decided to express my opinion in my work.’ Confronting various non-physical traumas endured throughout her life – borne primarily from encounters with racism in daily life and the institutional biases prevalent in the art world – Pindell expanded her practice beyond the canvas, embracing a polemical approach to addressing social injustices. Created a year after the accident, the artist’s inaugural and most famous video work, Free, White and 21 (1980), features Pindell recounting several racially charged anecdotes experienced by herself and her mother. From the cruel treatment she endured in kindergarten at the hands of her teacher to her mother’s skin being burned with lye by a babysitter who considered her dark skin to be ‘dirty’. Each anecdote is interspersed with clips of Pindell dressed in white-face, assuming the role of a dismissive interlocutor who undermines the visceral trauma of these incidents with insouciant ease, retorting, ‘You really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me.’

Pindell has since created unflinching socio-political work, tackling a wide array of issues ranging from the Vietnam War and apartheid to gender inequality, homelessness and the AIDS crisis. In her mixed media work Separate But Equal Genocide: AIDS (1991–92), a diptych featuring six-foot-tall monochrome flags, Pindell embroidered in red thread the names of individuals who succumbed to AIDS – whether from complications of the illness or negligent healthcare – paying tribute to those personally known to her, including her biracial cousin, who received differing levels of healthcare depending on what race he was perceived as.

Recent years have seen Pindell return to her enduring correspondence with the circle, revisiting the iconic spray-painting techniques established in her early career. In one of her latest works, Tesseract #16 (2024) – named after the four-dimensional hypercube – she extends the form, visualising new complex geometries in diamonds, hollow cylinders and other shapes, which infiltrate the aeriform hazes of confettied colour and bokeh effect light sources.

Howardena Pindell was born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and lives and works in New York. She has exhibited extensively, including selected solo exhibitions at Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, UK, touring to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK, Spike Island, Bristol, UK, and Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2022–23); Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland (2022); The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas (2022); The Shed, New York, touring to Oklahoma Contemporary, Oklahoma City (2021–22); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois (2018); Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, Georgia (2015); Cleveland Institute of Arts, Ohio (1994); Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (1989); The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (1986); Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (1985); A.I.R Gallery, New York (1983); and Rockefeller Memorial Galleries, Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia (1971). Selected group exhibitions include New Museum, New York (2021); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, touring to Centre Pompidou, Paris (2021); Tate Modern, London, touring to Brooklyn Museum, New York and Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California (2017–19); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2017); Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Austria, touring to Museum Brandhorst, Munich, Germany (2016); Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas (2013); Seattle Art Museum, Washington (2009); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California (2007); and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2006).

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