My first encounter with Howardena Pindell’s work was during a period of research for my degree show. I was knee deep in a google image search for Dieter Roth’s sketchbooks, when an image of one of Pindell’s ‘chad’ works, Untitled #7, popped up instead.
The work was included in the exhibition Paper: Pressed, Stained, Slashed, Folded, held in 2009 at the MoMA, alongside Lucio Fontana, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Mona Hatoum and Martin Creed, and many others. My own work at the time dealt with themes of detritus and labour, with an attempt to tackle these through dealing with the abstract and the minimal. Pindell’s work encapsulated all of these ideas, and explored them more thoroughly than many of the other minimal, conceptual artists of the New York 1960s art scene that I had been looking at. Yet her work still seemed to be much less iconic in the canon than her contemporaries, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see her work in person at the Fruitmarket Gallery this November.
Looking only for aesthetic inspiration, my research into Pindell had been about her work, not on the artist herself, or even any of the rest of her oeuvre. When the show at the Fruitmarket opened, I was surprised to discover the Pindell’s work spanned so much further than the beautiful delicate abstract works that I knew – her voice taking on a strong resonance of personal and political frustration in video works such as Free, White and 21 (1980) Rope/Fire/Water (2020), but also to find out that Pindell was black.
Perhaps I was taken by surprise, not only because such politically rich video works seemed so distant from the delicate, tiny paper pieces, but because there is an overarching narrative (experienced by Pindell herself) that says black people must make work about the black experience, but those who are white are free to make abstract work independent of their identity. Guno Jones discusses the issue brilliantly in his essay, ‘Migrant Art and the Politics of Language’. He writes,
“The so-called migrant artist (or other marginalized subject, including female artists) is presumed to create art based on a select set of experiences, often informed by their origins, and knowing their background is somehow seen as a prerequisite for appreciating their work: “Now that I know where you are from, I can better understand the meaning of your art.” Conversely, the “Western” (non-migrant) artist—from the Netherlands or Germany, for example—does not need to identify with that place for us to understand their work. Rather their work comes from “nowhere”; it is “universal” by virtue of a presumed lack of difference or ethnic background. […] In this language we abstain from naming people as “non-migrant artists,” and by doing so we naturalize them as the norm, as belonging, as real citizens.”
Reading the essay, it feels as if Jones could have been writing about Pindell’s entire career trajectory, and many of the issues that the exhibition deals with. The solution he proposes suggests that:
“The challenge will be to balance respect for self-ascribed identity terminology while still questioning these when they become essentialist. How might we—whether policy makers, museum staff or general citizens—acknowledge that artists and artworks carry with them specific embodied experience and knowledge, while still acknowledging their universal nature, reflecting a shared humanity?”
Considering the exhibition, it’s important to emphasise that Pindell’s work is not defined by her identity or experience. It adds to it, certainly, but it cannot overpower it.
‘I am an artist. I am not part of a so-called “minority”, “new” or “emerging” or “a new audience”. These are all terms used to demean, limit, and make people of color appear to be powerless. We must evolve a new language which empowers us and does not cause us to participate in our own disenfranchisement.’
I actually began my journey through the exhibition backwards, beginning upstairs with her more recent works, but I want to begin talking about the works downstairs since they were my initial introduction to her, and they establish the building of a complex artistic voice over many years. Though I often disagree with the default chronological curation of exhibitions, in this case, I think it’s important.
Pindell stated that she didn’t want to make work about the black experience, and though eventually she did, I think it’s essential to first establish her as an exceptionally talented abstract artist, with an incredibly deep aesthetic understanding, and whose work has undeniable universality. With that as a base, her later works do not define her by her identity, but build on her talent as an artist; whose skill stands regardless of identity or experience.
In the new publication released to accompany the exhibition, Howardena Pindell: A New Language (available at the Fruitmarket Bookshop), one of the essays refers to ideas on an article Mel Bochner wrote on serial art:
“Perhaps, some art historians and curators have argued, these readymade symbols and systems offered a retreat from the outside world into a pleasurable, delirious space of infinite possibility.”
Though I’m wary to respect Pindell’s wishes that her identity not overpower the strength of her work, I found it interesting to consider that these repetitive and laborious works were an escape for her, a way to think about something other than her lived reality. As in the works of Bochner, and indeed Sol LeWitt, who at the time were making similar works around concepts of labour and repetition, her early pieces rejected the notion of the individual, so heavily emphasised during the time of the abstract expressionists, and instead looked at the universal, human and accessible qualities of the work.
Echoing other abstract, conceptual works that dominated the 1960s and 70s, such as pieces by Roman Opalka, Tching Hsieg, or Hanne Darboven, Pindell’s works such as 1-6031 with Additions, Corrections and Coffee Stain and Five emphasise the passing of time.
They suggest such monotonous experiences of sitting in a jail cell, or logging numbers in dull office work. Experiences such as these often do have relation to marginalised experience – after art school Pindell herself was forced to take up institutional secretary work in galleries after being rejected from 50 teaching job applications – but rather to view them through a depressing and political tone, I made the choice to view them as they were. The strokes repeating themselves over and over again feel light. Time slips away, being meaningless or nothing. They encapsulate time, but time barely feels present. The heavy intensity of the clock fades as my eyes trace each stroke after another.
In her works from the 70s there is an incredibly sensitive approach to the physical material. Each piece is composed of scraps of nothing, yet arranged so thoughtfully that they take on an elevated quality. Such ‘scraps’, when approached in the way Pindell does, overtake the possibilities of the most expensive Michael Harding oil paints. What her work demonstrates so brilliantly, as so much of conceptual art does, is that it is not the material that c
What I also love about her work is that it is not trying to be nothing, and it is not trying to disappear. The work is still very much there, but there is exists quietly. They just exist, as things in the background exist. As hole punches and scraps and graph paper exist. Not loudly, not boldly, but there. I could sit for a long time in front of a Pindell. They have that quality that so little art has – to allow you to think about your own life as you look at them. They are not about themselves, not about the artist. In so many definitions of the word, they are universal. We can look for meaning, but it would be wrong; their innate quality is what the defines them. The slight wonkiness of the canvas, or the way one dark blue chad stands out against the white, how the chads become entirely different material whether they are sitting on transparent graph paper or that of the handmade Japanese quality.
The room to the right on the downstairs floor of the gallery contained huge stretched canvases that I didn’t expect in the slightest when I came to the show. Paintings that really took me by surprise. Paintings that made me think of what might happen in the unlikely incident of Damien Hirst learning the art of subtlety, although these were painted 40 years earlier than those vaguely nauseating cherry blossoms.
I was surprised by these pieces in so many ways. Again, they are not really about anything, but become rich when you consider that they were painted at the same time that she was making the beautiful, quiet collages. These works appear so intensely made; so rich and colourful that they appear to emphasise the quality of detritus of the works in the other room. Perhaps they were a way to escape from the deep involvement in these paintings. To stand in front of one of the paintings is to be drawn entirely into another world, but to stand in front of a smaller chad work is to be placed very much inside your own. As well as chronological hanging, there are many issues I take with the white cube space, but these works seem to be made for it. Against the white wall their hue appears cosmological, taking on intense brilliance.
Returning now to the upper rooms where I began, the floor feels like a world of contradictions and contrast – a quality which I think is reflective of the artist herself and her multi-faceted and complex identity and approach to art making. Not just one thing or one approach, her work is so many things all at once. Works such as Plankton Lace #1 (2020) and Songlines: Connect the Dots (2017) respond to issues of climate change and the failing health of the planet.
Yet, their abstraction of beads, glitter and pastel hues, which Pindell reasons is ‘an intense relief, a kind of visual healing, so that you get some distance from what you’ve seen’, feels almost jarring when seen against works such as Columbus (2020) or Diallo (2000), in their dark intensity and violent poeticism.
The artist complicates violence – be that against people or the planet – as something that it not easy to swallow and can be approached, dealt with, and viewed in myriad ways. The stark contrast of the glitter with difficult verse creates an exhibition of contrast that emphasises the uncomfortable nature of the experiences that Pindell deals with.
No work more so than Rope/Fire/Water (2020) encapsulates this. In his essay for the Fleming Collection, Greg Thomas writes that it is the exhibitions ‘crowning achievement’. In its blunt delivery, I think it might be, but I have to confess that I wasn’t able to sit all the way through it (the trigger warning outside is, I think, definitely important to heed.) A few minutes into the video, whose ticking metronome induced an added sense of urgency and anxiety to the accompaniment of vivid descriptions and images of Lynch mobbings, Pindell voices a description of violence enacted towards a pregnant woman; which was the breaking point that signalled I needed to leave. We are empathetic creatures. Whilst unbearable to listen to the artists describe mutiliations of people of colour, that is not my history, and I don’t see myself in them. But I do see myself in a woman, and that I can’t watch. This is, I think, the exceptional power that this work posses. Violence is uncomfortable, but often if it’s not our history, we do not confront ourselves with it. We should.
Greg Thomas, in his review, also refers to the exhibition as having ‘awkward synthesis’. I don’t agree. It is a show of contradictions, which are perhaps often difficult, but I do not think they are awkward. I think they add to the work, like all good contrasts, and emphasise qualities of each other. Against the black, the glitter is more glittery, which in turn, makes the violence more poignant. Pindell has always been an artist of confrontation; her work marks a separation between her own identity and experience and the art she wants to make – both facets of her, but neither defined by the other. She is an artist of so many identities – bold and abstract and political, all at once, and all independent.