Artist, activist, writer and teacher, Howardena Pindell has been a force in contemporary art for more than half a century. Pindell was one of the few Black women to study art at Yale in the 1960s, and then began her career at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, as the first Black woman on the museum’s curatorial staff. She worked at MoMA for 12 years until her resignation in 1979. During this time, Pindell was a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery, the first women’s co-operative gallery in the US, which launched in New York in 1972, and she campaigned with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition for greater representation of African American artists and their work.
Throughout, she was also developing her distinctive abstract language based on the circle, the grid and the use of repetition, and pioneering the use of spray paint and other unconventional materials. Dense accumulation remains a feature of Pindell’s work, whether in drifts, grids and rows of circular “chads” generated by hole-punchers, layers of thickly painted, sewn canvas strips or the proliferation of texts, numbers and data presented in her more overtly issue-based work.
She is currently the professor of art at Stony Brook University in New York, where she has taught since 1979. A New Language, co-organised by the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and Spike Island in Bristol, is Howardena Pindell’s first solo institutional exhibition in the UK.
The Art Newspaper: A New Language is named after a text you wrote in the 1980s stating the need for people of colour to evolve a new empowering language that “does not cause us to participate in our own disenfranchisement”. What forms does this language take?
Howardena Pindell: I prefer language to be inclusive and not exclusive. It’s now changing, but in the art world the word “artist” used to mean white male, and if anyone criticised a white male, that was considered censorship. Also, in the past history of slavery, a person was called a slave as if that’s who they were by birth, rather than an enslaved person kidnapped from their home country. Now people are starting not to use the word slave.
Currently, I’m researching worldwide slavery including the slave markets in Venice and Florence, and the fact that Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was an enslaved person of Arab descent [scholars dispute this theory]. I feel we need to oppose the existence of language and also visual stereotypes. For example, in the US, Black Americans are often portrayed as dancing and living in dilapidated neighbourhoods, or as entertainers. This is slowly changing, but it still exists.
This desire to find a new language that transcends prejudice also extends to your art, from the early abstract works that use everyday materials to your more overtly issue-based mixed-media works and films, which directly address racism and discrimination of all kinds.
Yes, now I make both abstract and issue-related work. With the abstract work in the 1970s, I intuitively selected materials not commonly used before: glitter, talcum powder and perfume were also a playful addition. I’d go to a framer’s shop and ask to take things from the trash, or I’d punch holes into manilla folders and make templates for spraying paint. I love beauty and have been criticised for making works that are too beautiful. A white male critic once said my work was nothing but a light show and that he wanted to have sex under my paintings. But my abstract work was also criticised by the Black community. The director of the Studio Museum in Harlem told all of us African American abstract artists, both male and female, that we should just go downtown and show with the white boys.
How did that make you feel?
I felt sad that our work was not accepted by the African American community. There was a real attitude and we were heavily criticised and, in some cases, shunned.
In fact, racial politics did have a part to play in the motif of circles that was dominating your abstract work around this time and continues to be a feature.
Circles are an iconic form: the planets, Earth, the sun and the moon; and when a fellow graduate student at Yale started playing with the circle, I became mesmerised. Only after I started using them, I remembered a time when I was in north Kentucky with my dad in the early 1950s during segregation. We stopped at a root beer stand and on the bottom of the chilled mugs were giant, red painted circles, maybe three inches wide, which meant that they were designated for people of colour. As I started drawing circles and ovals, I think I was also trying to heal that earlier experience in Kentucky as a child.
While at Yale in the 1960s you enrolled on the Josef Albers colour theory class. How important was this and your time at Yale overall? I imagine there weren’t many other Black female students there.
I only knew of one other Black woman student but she was in a different department. The school was mostly male, as only graduate women could attend. I learned a tremendous amount and slowly my work turned from figurative to abstraction. The colour course changed my life. I don’t know where my eye would be without it. It was a very mechanical course but in terms of saturation, hue and complementary colours, I found that I was really seeing colour differently. But the big change to abstraction came after I left and came to New York, where I joined the staff at MoMA. Working at a major museum also exposed me to the abstract work in the collection, especially Kandinsky. I would walk around the galleries on the days the museum was closed to the public.
But as the first Black woman on MoMA’s curatorial staff you also experienced institutional racism.
Everyone was mad at me: the artists on the outside who wanted me to help them get into the museum, and the people on the inside who were mistrustful of artists and me in particular. My work as an artist was separate from my museum career and I resigned in 1979, after I had been there 12 years. After that, I made the transition to making explicitly issue-related work. Plus, in 1979 I had a serious head injury as a passenger in a car accident. This accident changed what I wanted to do; I realised how short life could be and I wanted to make work and write about the things that concerned me. I wanted my work to deal with the issues I’d been facing as well as to continue with abstraction.
A crucial turning point was your 1980 film, Free, White and 21, which presents a dialogue between you and a white feminist, with you playing both roles, one with a whitened face.
It was my first video and I chose film because I could cover everything verbally and tell the different things that happened to me, as well as to my mother. I was reacting to the racism in the New York feminist art movement and racism in general. I remember being in a feminist consciousness-raising group where I was the only Black woman. And when I brought up racism, they refused to talk about it, saying it was “just political”. In the film I played two roles: myself and a white woman. I used words that had been said to me by white women and the bandaged head represented the car accident. I had an all-woman crew and we filmed it in my loft on 7th Avenue and 28th Street.
You’ve made work about so many aspects of social injustice, both historic and contemporary. Are you optimistic that change is taking place?
In terms of museums, I’m optimistic; in terms of the world, I’m pessimistic. I mean, just look at what’s happening in Ukraine, then with Trump maybe returning as president and also the influence of the NRA [National Rifle Association]—it’s horrifying. I think it’s important to remember and draw attention to the historic atrocities of the past as now people seem to feel they have the right to do and say whatever they want. At the end of my film Rope/Fire/Water, Martin Luther King says: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
• A New Language, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK, 2 July-30 October
Born: 1943 Philadelphia
Lives: New York
Education: 1965-67 Yale University; 1961-65 Boston University
Key Shows: 2020 The Shed, New York; 2018 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and touring; 2017 Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London, and touring; 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; 1986 Studio Museum Harlem, New York; 1972 Whitney annual exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Represented by: Victoria Miro, London; Garth Greenan, New York