The Rose Art Museum opened up to the public for the first time in 2019 last Friday. The curators chose to honor Howardena Pindell, an underappreciated Black artist who innovatively used materials such as perfume and baby powder in her art and experimented with irregular canvases and unconventional techniques. Throughout her life, Pindell persevered in the art world despite facing the Jim Crow racism of 1960s and 70s. The Rose chose to display a collection of her work which spanned nearly five decades, ranging from homages to her father to work surrounding contemporary political activism.
The exhibit tracks her career, displaying various periods in her life. After a car accident that affected her memory, we can see her try to reconfigure her fractured past through different experimental phases, but what remains throughout her oeuvre is the use of dots and circles. Ever since she noticed dots on the silverware designated for Black people in restaurants she visited with her father, dots and circles have been found in every size and medium in her work.
Some pieces of Pindell’s that were heavily influenced by this experience are displayed on the first floor, mostly “Untitled” works. They mainly consist of layers of dotted paint atop spray paint, creating textured surfaces that soothe the eye the more one looks at it. The nebular pointillism of the pieces has an entrancing color field which makes one want to stare at her art for hours. These are pieces that invite you to spend time with them, to make something out from hundreds of dots.
However, the more I explored the exhibition, the less enthusiastic I was about her work. There was a section that seemed unapproachable. There was a clear influence by her father’s occupation as a mathematician, evident in works which used discarded circles from punched paper attached to grid paper. Even with context, there isn’t really a connection to be made with those pieces. It jokingly seemed to look like the arbitrary tally marks or numbers found in the notebook of a math student, but the result seemed emotionally isolating and lacked resonance.
One of Pindell’s more interesting artistic experiments is her photography. After her painting took a toll on her physically, she turned to taking pictures of her television screen and drawing vector arrows on them. This is referred to as video drawing. This technique is a visually stimulating way to perceive the movement of a frozen figure within the frame. She does this later in the exhibit in her space exploration phase. We can see that her techniques and ideas return to her later in her career, culminating in some of her most dynamic work.
Photography is also sliced up in some of my other favorites of her work. She cut out strips of photographs and painted in the negative space. She took pictures of public events like a parade for Nelson Mandela and tried to recollect the moment through paint. This is a visually stimulating way to share her experience through the lens of her fragmented memory.
The exhibition at the Rose honors Pindell’s life with respect to her victories, her hardships and her interests. It explores her personal life from her family to her sometimes unsubtle political activism. Her innovative use of different powders, discarded paper and even her own blood on stretched, oblong canvases has allowed her to leave her mark on contemporary art movement. Her ability to combine abstract concepts to create a cohesive style makes her unique and distinctive as a modern artist.