Howardena Pindell talks sexism, racism and art
The artist discussed the struggles and triumphs she encountered during her over 60-year career.
In her talk on Saturday afternoon, Howardena Pindell discussed her experiences with racism and sexism as a pioneering Black artist. Pindell’s exhibit, “What Remains to be Seen,” opened at the Rose Art Museum on Friday, nearly 25 years after her Rose debut on Nov. 6, 1993.
The Rose is the “third and final stop” of her exhibit. It was previously displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and then at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Saturday’s discussion was facilitated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, who are her co-curators for the exhibit.
Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. Her life in the art world began in the third grade, when her art teacher told her parents that she was a gifted artist and recommended taking her to art museums and galleries. Only years later would Pindell appreciate the variety of artworks she saw as a child, created by not just by white men, but also by women and people of color, she recollected during her talk.
Her father was a mathematician who frequently wrote down the numbers on their car’s odometer as if he were balancing a checkbook. Pindell explained that this was the reason for her comfort with numbers, and for their prominence in some of her artworks.
Pindell also shared a formative experience she had on a car trip with her father through Kentucky. When they stopped at a root beer stand, she noticed that all the mugs had red circles on the bottom, which her father explained meant that those glasses were for persons of color. When she learned this, Pindell developed a fear of circles for a long time, an obsession which would manifest in her art. Pindell also appreciates circles for their “simplicity” and universality.
One year Pindell received a microscope for her birthday, which she explained would lead to a short-term fear and eventually a fascination with water in her art. Looking through the microscope’s lens, a young Pindell was both horrified and intrigued by the amoebas and particles that she discovered swimming in puddles and ponds. Later in her life, she grew to appreciate water’s symbolism, especially as a representation for the Middle Passage, the sea route by which slaves were taken from Africa to the West Indies, she explained.
During her time as an undergraduate at Boston University, Pindell said she “kind of hated Boston,” because of the “implied segregation,” where residents kept themselves grouped by race. Her happiest moments in Boston were spent at the Isabella Gardener Museum, though she added that was before much of their artwork, including a Vermeer, was stolen in 1990.
At BU she developed a style of art that she described as “really tight, figurative paintings,” which would “gradually” give way to a more abstract style during her time as a graduate student at Yale University. At Yale, she said that she faced greater difficulties still, working five days a week and some nights to make ends meet. Sexism was rampant: The women’s dorm was colloquially referred to as the “Bay of Pigs.”
She found inspiration in the work of many contemporary abstract artists including Larry Poons, and experimented with using non-permeable surfaces to control the way that paint seeped into the canvas. She also began to experiment with media and materials, including rice paper, canvas, spray paint, hole-punched paper and even perfume, she explained. Pindell said her best teacher at Yale was also her meanest. He was often harsh, but he knew a wealth of information about materials, techniques and forms.
She graduated from Yale in 1967 with no debt, which she now recognizes as a great privilege for an art student. That same year, she became the first Black female art curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she worked for 12 years. She recounted being shocked by the sexism and racism in the art world, especially compared to the diverse art she experienced growing up. She made $5,000 in her first year — about $37,000 in today’s dollars. Sometimes she had to sew her own gowns. After a year working at the MoMA, she received a letter announcing that she was to be awarded a raise of $5 a year — less than $40 in today’s money. “That was when I decided to re-unionize,” she laughed.
It was in this period that she began to advocate for social justice. In 1972, she created the A.I.R. Gallery in New York with 19 fellow artists, dedicated to showcasing the art of underrepresented groups.
In 1979, Pindell protested white artist Donald Newman’s exhibition at the SoHo gallery Artists Space, which was titled “The N----- Drawings” because of the use of charcoal pigment in the artwork. Pindell signed a letter protesting the exhibition and demonstrated in front of the gallery. She described how a white woman who was a friend of the director of the gallery told the protesters, “‘Who do you think you are, coming down here and telling us what to do? This is a white neighborhood!’” Following this incident, Pindell left her position at the MoMA to become a professor at the Stony Brook University, where she has taught for nearly 40 years.
Shortly after she left the MoMA, Pindell was in a near-fatal car accident while driving with critic Donald Kuspit. The crash left her with short-term amnesia and “changed her outlook on life,” she said.
Since then, Pindell has been hard at work producing new art. She frequently weaves politics and social activism into her art, even while working as a professor.
After Pindell spoke, Beckwith and Oliver insisted that Pindell was being too modest about her achievements as an artist, and said that her attitude toward art and life is best described as “generous.”
Beckwith concluded that what makes Pindell’s art powerful is two things: “The insistence on having a message, and the insistence on having a method.”
—Editor's Note: the name of one of the exhibits described contains a racial slur.