Some art exhibitions are also lessons in the history of art. Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, a long-overdue survey of the indomitable African-American woman’s oeuvre, on view through the end of May at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, provides so many it’s hard to believe they stem from just one show and person.
With five decades’ worth of obsessive numerical cut-paper collages, visionary television drawings, giant glittery wall hangings, bluntly political word paintings, cut-and-stitched canvases, brazen self-portraits, handmade-paper cosmologies, photorealistic exercises, and even a soft geometric sculpture, the show spans a dizzying range of media and concerns. Traces of hard-edge abstraction and minimalism, conceptual art, feminist art, identity politics, new media and even performance place Pindell in sync with her times, occasionally ahead of them. That’s lesson number one, that an artist unafraid to experiment, to change, to move on and also to return, can produce a radically diverse body of work. And that, unlike what the art historical canon too often suggests, big name artists aren’t the only ones who practiced in this or that ism, they’re only the most prominent and best collected. So goes lesson number two.
Lesson number three demonstrates how — and this is a nifty and crucial aspect of retrospective exhibitions — seemingly unrelated practices appear unified when viewed as an ensemble, from a distance. The more you see, the more it holds together. Motifs recur as content accrues.
Dots are everywhere: beginning as colorful punctuations of abstract space, growing pointillist in luminous oversize canvases made by spray-painting hole-punched stencils, becoming obsessive in drawings crowded with those leftover chads, bumping up in all-black studies, littering the fabulously scumbled surfaces of giant pastel (and, originally, perfumed) mixed-media paintings, radiating celestially in pictures of the night sky, popping into three dimensions in bubbly paper-and-thread constructions. Grids and vectors and numerals function likewise, starting out as pure concept and ending up as something concrete, spending plenty of time in between.
Human bodies, deftly noted in the earliest works on view but virtually banished by the time Pindell was out of school, resurface in the ’80s along with overt personal and political commentary. For the life-size Autobiography paintings she traced her own prone form; skeletons populate a 2014 installation on the subject of famine.
All of it — form and content, geometries and bodies — come together in the artist’s terrifically prescient Video Drawings, begun in 1973 upon purchase of her first color television set and revisited periodically. (They were also the subject of a small but ambitious show at Document Gallery in West Town, which ended a few weeks ago.) To make the series, Pindell marked random configurations of numbers, dots and arrows on sheets of clear acetate, affixed them to the screen using static electricity, and took photographs of the resulting overlay between televised image and drawing. The carefully edited results uncannily diagram the movements of athletes, the flow of the elements, something akin to metaphysical waves, and, in a painfully ironic sub-series from 1988, the atrocities of international warfare. It all lines up eventually, whether we care or not: but we should.
Lesson number four concerns the systematic racism and sexism that are the most obvious reasons for Pindell being less well-known than she ought to be today, though this exhibition and its extensive catalog go some way toward reparations. Her biography reads like a model of fierce persistence in the face of unrelenting odds, certain details of which can be grasped by watching a lone effort in the medium of video, Free, White and 21, a scathing narration of the racist attitudes Pindell has encountered in her life, both in and outside the art world, as performed by the artist in two opposing roles: herself and—with the help of a blond wig and ivory face paint — a young white woman.
Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Pindell studied painting at Boston University and earned an MFA from Yale, where she was the only person of color in her program. Denied a teaching job after graduation, she became the first African-American to hold a curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art — an achievement that broke ground for, among others, the co-curators of What Remains To Be Seen, Naomi Beckwith of the MCA and Valerie Cassel Oliver of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the show will travel next. Told that her abstract paintings were “not black art,” she has nevertheless exhibited regularly since the early ’70s, beginning with her inclusion in “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” a landmark display at the Whitney Museum. A founding member of A.I.R., the first women’s cooperative gallery in New York City, she eventually resigned due to her white colleagues’ disregard of the connections between racism and feminism. Similarly alienated by her museum coworkers’ response to a heated controversy at Artists Space — a SoHo nonprofit where a white artist’s “N----- Drawings” were exhibited in 1979 — Pindell left MoMA.
Nineteen seventy-nine turned out to be a landmark year for Pindell, and not just because the change of job allowed her more time to focus on art making. A few months after accepting a professorship at Stony Brook University, where she continues to teach today, she was involved as a passenger in a serious car crash. The trauma, which resulted in physical injury and short-term amnesia, fundamentally altered the course of her studio practice. Autobiography entered in, initially as a means of memory retrieval, with the political following close behind. Lesson number five: life happens to artists, and in happening to them it happens to their artwork, too.
Lesson number six is that not all viewers will come along for the ride. Pindell’s abstractions entrance me; her figurations mostly don’t. Some of that is no doubt due to the vagaries of individual taste. And yet, the acute politics of Free, White and 21 devastate me whereas those of the no less stark Autobiography series leave me unmoved. What works in one medium may not in another, says lesson number seven.
As for lesson number eight: go see this show. It has too much to teach us to be missed.