In 1988, Howardena Pindell organized Autobiography: In her Own Image, an exhibition at INTAR Latin American Gallery where she invited 18 women of color artists to present views of themselves “which may not be particularly pleasing to the dominant culture.” She described the work as “neither neutered nor devoid of personal references to gender, race, and class or paradox, conflict, and celebration.” The idea for Pindell’s exhibition came out of her own Autobiography series: mixed media works she created between 1980 and 1995, a selection of which are currently featured at Garth Greenan Gallery.
The Autobiography series came about after a near fatal crash in which Pindell sustained severe injuries and memory loss. Early works from this series on view at Garth Greenan bear witness to the artist literally and figuratively piecing together fragments of her past. They testify to the pivotal roles travel, as well as her investigations into alternative philosophies and religions, played in helping heal her internal and external wounds. Prior to her 1979 accident, Pindell was making abstract paintings that were often based on a grid structure and emphasized process to explore nuanced color, light, and movement. After the accident, she made a conscious decision to create work that was more “viscerally” personal, and felt an urgency to address in her art the appalling omission and underrepresentation of women of color that she had experienced firsthand during the ’60s and ’70s. Having survived the accident, she developed a dictum for the series, “You never know. You may wake up dead.”
Pindell’s works at Garth Greenan refer specifically to her travels in Japan, India, and Africa. Several extended sojourns in Japan—her stay in Kyoto in particular—impressed upon her the quiet reverence for nature that is characteristic of Japanese culture. Autobiography: Oval Memory #1(1980–81), exposes Pindell’s distinctively meticulous process of hand-stitching and piecing together both materials and narrative content. This work, a kaleidoscopic, colorful collage of images of temples and landscape, alternates strips of postcards and photographs with painted paper in a maze-like oval held together by string, nails, glue, glitter, and painted circles. Pindell found the maze-like formats she encountered in Japan strikingly beautiful compared to the grid structures favored in the West, and she accordingly adopted asymmetrical shapes for her paintings, which she then filled with photographic clips of places and people. Autobiography Japan: Hiroshima Disguised (1982) is comprised of 10 irregularly shaped canvases set against the white ground of the wall. Appalled by the horrors wreaked by the atomic bomb, Pindell embedded images of mutilated bodies, most notably hands and helicopters from the Vietnam War, in thickly layered, almost volcanic, surfaces of paint, acrylic medium, and agglomerations of dots.
Drawn to India’s spiritually uplifting culture during her travels in the region, which included long, meditative stays at ashrams, Pindell pays tribute to Hindu temples, deities and spirituality in Autobiography: India (Shiva, Ganges) (1985). A long pink expanse with undulating linear rhythms evokes the flow of water across pieces of canvas joined by sewing, paint, glitter, and her signature accumulations of dots. Glossy postcard images and hand painted reflections dazzle and flicker harmoniously, interacting visually with Pindell’s signature thick, glistening surface. Within the bold red, orange, and blue of Autobiography: Fire (Suttee) (1986–87) are embedded small photographs of the artist’s scarred hands and a traced silhouette of her body. The silhouette was cut into the canvas and then sewed back together—not only a reference to the grueling process of putting herself back together after her accident, but an homage to Pindell’s friend Ana Mendieta, whose chalk outline was drawn on the roof where she landed after falling to her death. Small, parallel paint strokes appear as an allover weave or a repeated mantra that unites the disparate components and images that make up the work, in a metaphor for the process of rupture and healing.
These same painted cross hatchings recur in the Africa paintings, where, additionally, they reference ritual scarifications that are considered a form of beauty. Discovering she had “a rainbow of African DNA,” Pindell’s travels to Africa were of deep, personal significance in her ongoing journey to reclaim and redefine herself, both in life and in art. She found affirmation of her abstract paintings in African patterns and geometries: “I think using aggregates is African, like mixed media putting a lot of different substances together…I think one can also use abstraction and have a Black aesthetic because of the way abstraction has been handled in Africa through the use of geometry and patterns,” Pindell argues. As early as 1972, she felt a bond between her own loosely hung, strip-constructed canvases and African textiles she saw in a show at MoMA. The shape of Autobiography: Africa (Buddha) (1986) echoes the shape of an African ankle bangle—Pindell had recently written about African sculptural adornments in a 1984 catalog text for The African-American Institute.
The meditative, spiritual quality that Pindell achieves in the autobiographical works at Garth Greenan gives way, in the late ’80s and ’90s, to harsher social and political realities such as homelessness, AIDS, genocide, sexism, xenophobia, and apartheid. Although the later, more strident paintings from the Autobiography series are not represented in the current show, viewers here are nonetheless presented with the inherently personal and political stance Pindell takes in her life and art. As a Black woman artist starting out in the art world in the late 1960s, she has evolved her commanding voice in an inimitable way. For a long time, Pindell’s work was critiqued as being too decorative and feminine. The world is starting to catch up with her. At last, her paintings are being seen as the visually groundbreaking and culturally engaged works that they are.
– Susan Harris