Newcity Art sat down with curator Naomi Beckwith to discuss the work of Howardena Pindell on the occasion of the artist’s first major survey, opened in late February at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
How big of a milestone is this exhibition in the context of Howardena Pindell’s career?
This is the first large survey of Pindell work in the world. She’s had some monographic shows, but it’s been a while, not since the nineties. And even then, most of those shows dealt with a particular aspect of her practice or a particular series of works. This show is also a way for me and my co-curator Valerie Cassel Oliver to connect two branches of her work that have been basically kept separate in her critical reception.
Does this divide have to do with her accident?
Exactly, it corresponds to pre- and post-1979. The work changes in 1979, and I’ll go into why in a moment. I’ve found that there are two different critical receptions to these bodies of work. There are those who are infatuated with the work before 1979, which is mostly abstract. What is most apparent in those works are all the experiments that she’s doing with material, shape and form as a way of pushing painting forward. After 1979, you have the introduction of found images, the figure and politics into the work, and it has an entirely different reception. There are those who are quite celebratory of a woman who is making the personal political. But these two conversations seem never to speak to each other. The challenge has always been how to make these projects, these two eras, look like the work of one artist, and not two distinct oeuvres. My argument and Valerie’s argument is that it’s the work of one artist, and you’ll see this formal play happening on both sides of the 1979 divide. You’ll see a whole set of concerns and even subject matters show up pre- and post-seventy-nine that people hadn’t been paying attention to.
On one hand, you are emphasizing this moment as a kind of rupture, but on the other, you are trying to bridge the gap that has been keeping them separate in art history.
Absolutely, and the way that Val and I talked about the show early on was actually more like a spiral. Instead of thinking about this as a linear trajectory through time that only moves in one direction, we really are imagining this type of practice as one that moves forward and around at the same time, spiraling in and out. In fact, the last work, at least on the checklist, is exactly that, a spiral that formally takes up the same experiments that she was doing in the early seventies.
What happened in 1979?
A couple things happened that are important for her. Up until 1979, she is active with a women’s artist group very much advocating for feminist work. She’s doing work against racism, especially in museum practices. She’s also a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for twelve years, the first black woman to hold a position in the department of Prints and Illustrated Manuscripts. In 1979, there is a show downtown at the Artists Space gallery, which is an independent, alternative space…
I know the show that you are referring to…
I won’t say it, but clearly, the title of the show was just a provocation by someone who wanted attention, and race was the bait by which he could raise enough stink to make himself infamous and get press. Howardena joins these ad hoc committees to protest the exhibition.
There was a lot of energy around that debate, which was very controversial.
Exactly, and because she is working with these groups to protest this art institution, she finds her colleagues at MoMA calling her an agent of censorship. As there are now, there were big debates then about this ultimate freedom of speech versus respect for the multiplicity of communities. Those two things were rubbing up against each other in 1979 just as they are now. Things became so uncomfortable for her at MoMA that she decides to leave. Mind you, it was already complicated for her to be an artist at MoMA, trying to do this work for artists who are also thinking of her as a bit of a double agent because she’s working for an institution.
After MoMA, she gets a job at SUNY Stony Brook, and she’s still there to this day. That fall, she’s in a car with Donald Kuspit, who pulled her into this job, and they have a sideswipe collision with a nun driving something massive, like a Cadillac. They’re in a VW bug, she’s in the backseat on the passenger side, where the other car makes impact, and Pindell sustains a massive head injury. She’s in the hospital, she cracks her skull. She has amnesia, and to this day she has slight vertigo. With this near-death experience, she realizes that she needs to reassess her life and figure out what it is she needs to accomplish with her art. From that moment on, the work takes on more of a political urgency, and it also becomes a mnemonic tool by which she starts reconstituting her life and memories. She goes through this archive of memories to make work and of course at this moment she is realizing that the personal is political. Her memories, her reconstitution of self also becomes a reconstitution of a political self.
In terms of the politics of this new chapter of work, how overt is that?
The show is geographically laid out in that way. We have this super symmetrical building here, and super symmetrical galleries. One side is pre-1979, and we state that clearly in the introduction, and then we have, in the Lake Gallery between the two halves, the year 1979 represented. Even though this is such a break for her, I didn’t want the audience to walk away thinking that this was just Howardena’s issue—her head injury, her politicizing moment. I also wanted to give people the sense that, in 1979, there was a sense of political urgency in the world as well. A lot of it will look familiar from today’s view. We’re having problems with Iran, it is the year of their revolution. This is the ascendancy of Reagan, whose slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” We’ll have images that will give you a walk-through of 1979 in a social and political way on the outside of a structure, and on the inside is Howardena’s story of that year.
That reinforces the spiral metaphor, as well.
Exactly. She has always been an activist, throughout her life. Her parents were activists. But it’s not until 1979 that the politics come inside the work. So it’s as if these branches of her life collide in a way that is not just about a personal issue, the world is also forcing this upon her.
Different artists have different ideas about how their work is displayed and interpreted, especially when you are considering politics, not just historical politics but contemporary politics, to a certain extent. How has your relationship with Pindell, as well as with your co-curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, been working out?
It’s kind of incredible. Howardena is so thrilled to see a survey that she’s been relatively hands-off. She’s been informed of everything, but she’s not trying to guide the conversation in any way. Again, she was curator for twelve years, so she understands the relations between objects and curatorial practice, and she understands even better than some artists that you have to leave space for interpretation.
I always consider myself playing a long-term game in art history. I’m putting something on the table that I imagine should be part of a conversation that will extend well beyond the life of the artists I work within the contemporary field and well beyond my life. In 2017, my joke was, “Who’s the hottest artist this year? Leonardo Da Vinci.” He’s been gone for five-hundred years! This is the ambition I have for a project like this. This is a statement about Howardena that should spark other conversations. And, it was really important to work with Valerie on this. She’s someone, like me, who is committed to working with women and artists of color. Valerie also is someone who has a great fluency in thinking about abstraction. Often, when we talk about abstract work, we think it’s work without meaning or without content. Valerie is deeply invested in talking about how meaning can be ascribed to that which doesn’t have an image or a figure.
Pindell’s work is super-exciting [also] because it’s so much about process. We talk about process art now and things that reveal their own making, but that wasn’t a big part of art practice back then. There were ways in which a lot of people were trying to play with painting. There were some people making objects that looked like things frozen in time, like Lynda Benglis and her pour pieces, and they were in a show together. But when you look at Pindell’s work, you see her hand. You see the drawing, you see the sewing, you see the spray-painting, you see her tossing confetti, even. You see the action of the artist. To see the action is to see the artist. Which means you have to think about a black woman’s body being activated.
And that seems to be where the politics enter even in the space of abstraction.
This is the only thing I want to talk about with abstract work! But there’s also something else that is really important that I think is key for Val and I working on this, and that is, when we talk about the history of art we do talk about the people who write the history—the art historians, the curators. In the long history of Western art, you don’t see a lot of black women speaking. This project is not just a way to reintroduce the world to Howardena, it’s also an homage to a woman who is in many ways our predecessor. She is known as an artist but not as a curator. As black women, we had to acknowledge the way in which she opened doors for us and made certain positions possible and certain imaginings possible for us as a career. One of her best friends at the time was Lowery Stokes Sims, the first black woman curator at the Metropolitan Museum. We had Lowery write the first essay in the book as a way to give homage to this history. We wanted these voices that are contemporaries of a moment speaking about it today, and with young voices in there too, scholars who are working on their PhDs now.
Curatorially, at a museum of contemporary art, how do you balance the past and the present? You had Haruki Murakami on the walls recently, and now you’re presenting a show that in some ways is very historical. How do you think about the contemporaneity of the practice of rewriting art history?
You are asking a two-part question—one about the methodology of the MCA, and the other about how we begin to define the contemporary both in general but vis-a-vis Howardena in particular. To answer the first question, the MCA is committed to thinking about the ways in which the contemporary means multiple things to multiple people. You probably noticed that, at some point in college curricula, art history was joined by visual studies. The MCA is very much trying to work within the spirit of this expanded notion of what our cultural heritage is. We are deeply invested in art, which is the anchor for the work that we do. At the same time, we realize that there is now this fluidity in these cultural conversations between things like art and music and fashion and design. What we are doing at the MCA is balancing out those kinds of presentations. Between David Bowie and Murakami—who is one-hundred percent an artist, mind you—you’ve seen us trying to think about a larger popular history of visual culture and art together. We’ll go between a design show, like with Virgil Abloh, and Howardena Pindell, who is representative of our deep art historical commitments.
In terms of how we start a conversation about the contemporary in general and specifically with Howardena, we like to say—and by we, I mean the wonderful consensus we have as a curatorial team—that we don’t think of the contemporary as a moment in time, we think of it as a perspective. For me, the contemporary perspective on Howardena is to say that pre-1979 and post-1979 are deeply intertwined in her work. Howardena is not in one moment a modernist and another moment a post-modernist. What looks like that on the surface starts to reveal itself as moving back and forth at the same time. I like to point out that she graduated from Yale with an MFA in painting the same year the MCA was founded. You have a museum of contemporary art burgeoning—a lot of them, all the MOCAs are being born at this same time—just as she’s coming out of school. Her education was modernist, but she comes out of school and realizes that there has to be a new way of working. So she, in my mind, is a real bridge figure between the modern and the contemporary.
And, to a certain extent, the curatorial practice becomes the contemporary practice.
Absolutely. She’s working in the department of Prints and Illustrated Books, and if you think about the people she’s showing and writing about—Johns and Rauschenberg and Allen Shields—these are all people whose work isn’t hemmed in by one type of practice. Johns is mostly known as a painter, but clearly, he is totally innovating what painting is. Rauschenberg is all over the place—it’s performance, it’s filmmaking, it’s printmaking, it’s sculptural practice. Same with Allen Shields, who’s making installation environments. As a curator, Howardena is totally thinking beyond media specificity.
Pindell’s curatorial position at MoMA is fascinating. Drawings and Prints is territory that is already a marginalized area of media, with a lot of artists who are in that space but not exclusively.
Totally, and she’s not separating it out as a curator. When she’s working in her studio, she’s going back and forth between paper and painting and you see these two types of works totally intermingling.
So there’s not much of a hierarchy there for Pindell?
No, it’s really amazing, and she doesn’t sketch. I found some sketchbooks from her grad-school years, but later on, she doesn’t keep notebooks per se. For her drawing practice—rather, her work-on-paper practice—if it’s not a finished work, it becomes material for something else. She’ll make a drawing and then hole-punch it, and those chads will show up on another work later. She’s constantly recycling stuff to the point that it becomes less about planning—you know, sketching something that becomes something else—and more about artistic labor. The labor itself is an object.
That gets back to the issue of what the politics of abstraction can be, and the representation of labor as an embodied practice.
Embodiment is everything for me. I did a little show at the Studio Museum called “30 Seconds Off An Inch.” In it, embodiment is one of the things I talk about as a practice that is a new form of working for a lot of artists—showing that body at work. Show it practicing, because it will always point back to a specific body. I do talk about that in my essay for this show—taking Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” and think about the “Specific Body” as a specific object.