Howardena Pindell has been making work steadily since the late 1960s, when she arrived in New York after receiving her M.F.A. at Yale. A founding member of the landmark feminist artists collective A.I.R. Gallery in 1972, she has taught at SUNY Stony Brook since 1979, all the while consistently producing bodies of work both complex and multifarious. Though she is well known and highly regarded in certain niches, Pindell has largely flown just beneath the radar of the greater art world's consciousness for the past 45 years. Other than a smattering of gallery shows—the last one taking place eight years ago—her work has not been given a substantial presentation in New York since 1986. Rather than attempt to retrace the artist's métier in a short time and small space, a compact but lovely show recently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery Howardena Pindell: Paintings, 1974 - 1980 offered a focused meditation on Pindell's paintings and works on paper from the nascence of her career.
Fourteen works offered a window into the breadth of Pindell's output, each one revealing an intensive process. In some works the reconstruction of the canvas was smooth and more consciously streamlined, but the deliberate crudeness of “Memory: Future” (1980 - 81) allowed an intimate glimpse into the artist's methodology. Here, Pindell cut a 9 and a half-foot-long canvas into vertical strips, which she then sewed back together, leaving the stitching obvious. Over this reconstructed surface she applied mountains and valleys of viscous, milky, blue paint; image fragments cut from books and magazines; sparkles; and liberal sprays of confetti made from the small paper discs that are the residue of a hole puncher. Taken as a whole, the work was an exceptional topographical map of material, while an up-close study afforded the viewer an understanding of the labor that must have been involved in its creation. “Memory: Future”recalled elements of various Abstract Expressionist painters—among them Barnett Newman, Lucio Fontana, and Jackson Pollack—but there was a textile quality that also conjured up patches basted over the threadbare areas on an old pair of jeans. The painting harked back even further (and perhaps more importantly), to countless and nameless women who have long been the predominant creators of quilts, embroidery, and other objects typically referred to chiefly as “craft.”
Recklessness is an inherent quality of confetti, the stuff thrown unheeding into the air by partygoers, and subsequently becoming the detritus that litters streets in the aftermath of a celebration. Pindell seized upon this attribute of the medium and she orchestrated it like a maestro. Even in the smoothest of the canvases, where consistent coats of paint essentially basted down the confetti, a tension seemed to roil just below the surfaces. More unsettling were the examples where Pindell allowed for eruption. “Untitled #98” (1978) was no less overwhelming for its diminutive size. The work on paper, glued down to a board, is a morass of thickly and unevenly applied little dots. Its disturbing texture, combined with its predominant dark green and blue color scheme evoked, and perhaps was a predecessor of the staged, grotesque wastelands depicted by Cindy Sherman in her “Disaster” series of images, which she photographed a decade after Pindell's piece. The knockout work of the show, “Untitled” (1973) provided a sharp counterpoint to “Untitled #98,” and further evidenced the rich diversity of Pindell's production. On a 7 1/2-foot scroll, Pindell meticulously affixed thousands of the little circles of paper in vertical rows, upon each of which she'd penned a different number. The more time one spent with the work, the deeper the realization of what a daunting procedure it must have been to produce. Again, the medium of the hole punch might be rooted in crafting but as Barry Schwabsky rightly points out in his catalogue essay (published in conjunction with the show), the work also connects to the conceptual art being made right around the same moment. Pindell is rarely, if ever, associated with artists like Mel Bochner or Sol LeWitt, but maybe she should be. One can't help but notice the dearth of female artists linked to the American Conceptualists, let alone the scarcity of female artists of color. It is refreshing to see such a remarkable talent as Pindell's at last be given due recognition.