Multidisciplinary artist Howardena Pindell has reached an apex in her career. With the recent presentation of her work in major survey exhibitions, her art has become a phenomenon of its own. Pindell tenderly and painstakingly braids her formal artistic skills, political positioning, and personal reflections into sculptural canvases that at their most impactful seem to bloom in psychedelic colors that reach beyond the work’s surface. Pindell’s exacting rigor transforms her art into playful, eye-arresting fractals and procedural poetry. A retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 20.
Jessica Lanay: I read an anecdote in an interview in which you talk about beginning to number the circles in your work. I was wondering how much this is connected to your father being a mathematician.
Howardena Pindell: He had a book, and it had graph paper. He also liked to drive, and when we went anywhere he would write down the numbers when we started, and he would write down the numbers when we got there. He was interested in science and math. For my birthday as a small child I was given a microscope, and I was looking at drinking water and seeing all the things swimming around in the water. When I started the numbering, I found it a relief and a meditation.
JL: Does your artistic process help you work through outrage?
HP: It is very hard for me now to get angry, maybe because I have worked it out in the art. I can remember before when I was pretty angry, but that was when I expressed myself in writing. I think it is a combination of both my art and my writing that help me touch base with my anger. Now, I am feeling that I want my anger back. I am not going to stop my work to make myself angry, but I want to feel that anger again. The thing that I am really angry about now is Trump. It is almost like living again in the 1940s—it’s his rhetoric.
JL: Speaking of math, has the idea of chaos as order ever influenced your work?
HP: I love controlled chaos: I love the way it looks, the drama, the things juxtaposing with one another. Also, to hold the eye through beauty, to notice one thing next to another. I want to have a sense of inside and outside. When I was living in Japan I went to a place called Itsukushima Shrine, and they had a scroll called Heike-nyko. When you look at it, it looked like water. You look down into the water, and you saw things under the water. I am at the stage where I want a sense of going outside the picture plane.
JL: People ask a lot about pre- and post-accident differences in your artwork. What I want to know is: What was your body’s relationship to your work before and after the accident?
HP: In 1979, there was the exhibition called Nigger Drawings. A number of us, including Lucy Lippard, protested. David Hammons came to my loft, and we were making banners. When we went there they called the police and shut down the gallery, and then the whole chatter in the art world was that we were censoring the artist. And I was thinking: But you are censoring White women artists, Black men and women artists; you are censoring Asian artists and Native American artists—everybody. There were also other things happening. For instance, I was friends with Ana Mendieta, and I associate my lying down on the canvas and tracing my body with a crime scene or what it would have been like when she fell down onto the roof when, I assume, Carl Andre killed her. My getting in touch with my body after the car accident is in it, too. One of those reviews said in error that I cracked my skull. I did not crack my skull; I had a concussion, and my skull is dented. Still, it brought on a form of amnesia: I couldn’t read a watch or a clock.
JL: Can you tell me about the process of getting a piece from your imagination to the canvas, and what the vehicle is for translating what you see through your body? Is it emotion?
HP: I keep journals, and when I get an idea I write it down, because with the medication and my head injury, I have short-term memory loss. I am trying to resurrect the crusty, crunchy piece (Untitled #20 (Dutch Wives Circled and Squared)) (1978). I want to try to reinvigorate this approach, and I have to keep looking at my own notes. I want to revive the way I used to work and combine it with how I am working now.
JL: You speak often about moving from canonical figurative artwork to abstraction. Did how you see things as an artist change with that shift?
HP: I don’t know if you know the piece Scapegoat (1990); it’s in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. There is a little child, me, holding a ball—that is one of the paintings that came out of the accident, even though it is ten years after the accident. I felt there was a narrative that I wanted to put on canvas, but I didn’t want it to be on a rational picture plane or a rational perspective. At the bottom of the painting there is a white foot on my head—that was my old boss at the Museum of Modern Art. She is why I left. Then there is the text. My mother and I had a very adversarial relationship, and it was confusing for her because she was born in 1903, and she had a White birth certificate, but she was darker than I am. For some reason in Ohio they let her go to White schools. You can imagine what they said to her. Some of the things that I think were done or said to her she did to me. One of the things she said to me, before she died—she was in the hospital—she said, “If you don’t stop fighting racism someone is going to come along and destroy that little career of yours.” I put that text in the painting.
JL: Were there artists who were highly influential in your decision to become more experimental in your work?
HP: Frankly the earliest artist that influenced me was Marcel Duchamp. I loved the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). There is one piece I adored that looked like sugar cubes covered in a cage. That opened my eyes. When I worked for the Museum of Modern Art, the department I was in was Prints and Illustrated Books. One of the things that I catalogued was Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–1941), where he had little miniatures of his readymade pieces. My two influential things are the texture of Vincent van Gogh and Duchamp’s avant-garde thinking. Eva Hesse, I love her work. Vermeer, I love Vermeer.
JL: Some of your work is about being gaslighted as a visual artist who is a Black woman. One example is your short film Free, White and 21 (1980). Do you consider your work to be an affirmation of your experiences?
HP: I would say, yes, especially with that film. I said: This had to be done; it has to be video; I have to play the two parts. I bought the blonde wig at Woolworths, and the sunglasses were my sunglasses from the 1950s. It was the first autobiographical piece that I did that set in motion the rest of the work. Everything felt like I was doing the right thing. It is weird because I had the idea, and someone showed up—her name was Maria Leno, and she was part of Downtown Community Television Center. Ana Mendieta, while she was still alive was a member of A.I.R. Gallery, and she did an exhibit called Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, and that was my first showing of Free, White and 21. Then Franklin Furnace invited me to show it, and they were charging admission. I said: Don’t give me my honorarium; let people come for free.
JL: Your work is made up of discrete parts that are layered and built into a highly detailed field. Can you talk about the relationship between the individual pieces in your art and the final product?
HP: You know what I think it is related to? Fractured mind. Because I had a head injury. It was a concussion. All the pieces after that are an attempt to unite my mind again, to mend the rupture. I have had two head injuries. When I was a toddler I slipped and landed on the floor and ended up splitting open my head. When I was in the car accident … I took a terrible impact. The feeling was fractured in terms of face recognition, voice recognition. I still have memory lapses. I have an extreme memory for some things like me being in the crib and seeing my father come in and hand me a newspaper. I would say that the turning point was really that accident—that was when I started combining figuration and abstraction and started using text. It is almost like knitting different parts of myself together, trying to get back myself.
Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 20. It will then travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (August 25–November 25, 2018), and Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA (January 28–June 16, 2019).