The title “What Remains To Be Seen” aptly describes the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibition of Howardena Pindell’s five-decades-long career—i.e., more work forthcoming from the under-recognized artist. I also sensed another metaphor when I read a subtitle, “Cut, Sewn, Adorned,” in the exhibition’s first room: themes of discrimination, injustice and hope emerge from Pindell’s exploration of the intersection of art and activism.
“Pindell was among the first wave of academically trained artists,” according to VMFA deputy director and chief curator for art and education, Michael Taylor, “to dismiss the separation between pure abstraction and political art. She asserted that the pressures, prejudices and exclusions placed upon her as an African–American artist and as a woman—both in the art world and the world at large—were fair and necessary themes to explore in her art.”
Some exhibition visitors of Pindell’s generation (she was 21 when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964)—who grew up during the angst of Brown v. Board of Education and experienced oppression firsthand—might not be surprised by how difficult life was for her as a black woman in the 1970s. What might surprise visitors who take the time to read the captions about her life is how difficult the situation was for a professional black woman even in New York—and even after having studied painting at Boston University and Yale University. In listening to Pindell speak at the exhibition’s media preview—as well as chatting with her later in person, I could tell she is a woman of great moral courage and fortitude, not one to back down in the face obstacles.
Work Reflecting Gender, Racial Inequality
Having grown up in Philadelphia, Pindell in the ’70s felt she was a second-class citizen in the New York art world because she was an outsider. This challenge plays out in her diverse work, which creatively explores how she fought the closed art cliques of that period. “I got to see the art world from the inside and the outside in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “Gender inequity existed among blacks as well as whites. Those in power would often say, ‘That’s politics, and we don’t want to talk about politics’ or ‘That’s feminism, and we don’t want to talk about feminism.’ People would ask, ‘Won’t you please be cooperative?’ which meant, ‘Please shut up.’”
Her ‘cut, sewn, adorned’ works include acrylic or mixed media and punched papers on canvas or board, as well as collages of mixed media on paper. In 1977, she began making paintings through the new process of using pieces of unstretched canvas sewn together and decorated with materials such as glitter, talcum powder, swing thread and perfume—all to extend the boundaries of painting’s rigid tradition of rectangular canvas.
Her work is infused with evidence of her labor, such as creating rich, layered surfaces by obsessively affixing dots of pigment and paper circles made with an ordinary hole punch. Her use of rich colors and unconventional materials gives her finished works a lush textural and ethereal quality. “You can imagine what my house is like,” she said. “I never throw anything away. I literally have bags of dots at home.”
Her multifaceted portfolio comprises photography—such as the compelling chromogenic print, “Swimming, (1975),” video, film and performance art. Visitors should make time to watch Pindell’s 1980 12-minute video, “Free, White and 21”—a catchphrase of white privilege in 1930s and ’40s movies but one which the artist uses, as she appears in whiteface and wears a blond wig, to illustrate the stark divide between black and white Americans.
Work Reflecting Memory Issues
Pindell had set up a video camera in her apartment in 1979 after a life-threatening car accident had left her with partial memory loss. She had worked in The Museum of Modern Art’s curatorial ranks for 12 years and eight months after her accident, developed “Free, White and 21” out of her need to heal and to vent. “My work in the studio after the accident,” she said, “helped me to reconstruct missing fragments from the past.”
Her personal and diaristic art includes postcards from her global travels, which she said also helped with her amnesia—although she ticked off the names of MoMA curators from the 1970s so quickly, I found it hard to believe she ever experienced amnesia. She said her present medications cause her to have memory difficulties: “I keep day-pages in which I consciously try to remember how I felt when I did something on particular days—and I fill out a whiteboard with my daily activities.”
She also said she’s “started a card file to try to keep up on younger artists and what they’re doing.” She recommends that people visiting Alzheimer’s patients take pictures of family members, friends and specific places during visits to help restore memories of the past. Whether as a traveler, memoirist or activist, Pindell expresses themes relevant to the arc of her career since the 1960s.
Effusive in her praise of the VMFA for its inclusiveness, Pindell said she’d “taken out a membership”—which museum director Alex Nyerges said, “makes 45,001,” as the museum’s record fiscal year 2017-18 comprised 45,000 total memberships and nearly 700,000 visitors, the seventh-highest among the nation’s art museums. The show, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is divided between VMFA’s Evans Court (ground floor) and 21st Century (second level) galleries—which makes a good organizational plan for visitors interested in the museum’s collection of other African and African–American art.