New York

Howardena Pindell

Sragow Gallery

Howardena Pindell tells a story about how, traveling through northern Kentucky and southern Ohio in the ’40s, she and her family were offered root beer mugs that had large red circles drawn on the bottom. When she asked her father what the circles meant, he told her that they denoted those mugs that African-Americans were allowed to drink from. Obviously affected by this experience, Pindell later recalled how, even though she was “weak” in math and started using numbers in her work only after an Ohio gallerist wondered how many “points or circles” appeared therein, she employed statistics in the ’80s and ’90s to analyze the number of artists of color exhibiting in museums and galleries in New York. More recently, she has worked on a painted installation incorporating clay numbers that stand for families broken up during slavery.

Pindell became active as an artist in the late ’60s and early ’70s, at a time when many of her contemporaries were already interested in the investigation and application of mathematical systems. But for her, geometric abstraction—and more specifically statistics—has often referenced both social and personal history. And although she used words before becoming interested in numbers (one work in the current show, Separate but Equal: Apartheid, 1987, is from that sequence—a black and white canvas ripped and sewn together, leaving a gash, emblazoned with words like DEATH, TORTURED, and INTERROGATION), this show of work on paper demonstrated the full range of her achievement since 1968.

Several of Pindell’s works from the 1970s used graph paper to create numerical fields. 1-6031, 1973, serves as a kind of counting exercise, while Five, 1973, uses the tally system to generate an abstract field of marks. In another group, colored and numbered paper circles have been arranged into grids, while a recent series of untitled works finds the artist using thread to create the grid on which these punched-out discs are affixed, creating a quasi-sculptural surface.

In 1997, moving from her established interest in geometry to a broader preoccupation with natural and scientific phenomena, Pindell took an astronomy class at the New School in which she looked at images of galaxies and stars, nebulae and supernovae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Many of these became the source material for works like Sept. 1999/Northern Hemisphere, 2000–2001, Distances from the Sun/Radius and Altitude/Aug.–Sept. 1997/Northern Hemisphere, 2000–2001, and NCG 1566/Gravitation/May 2000/Northern Hemisphere, 2000–2001, in which colored papyrus, arrows, and numbers map out information culled from star charts. Added to these were a series of etchings depicting foliage that took her work in another, more decorative direction.

These threads may appear disparate, but Pindell succeeds in reconciling them. Her word paintings are explicit in addressing specific histories and conditions; her abstract works on paper do the same thing more obliquely. From the harsh social reality of the Jim Crow laws to remote celestial patterns, Pindell binds abstraction to “real” phenomena. Numbers and geometric shapes mean something, even if they can also be used to create highly formal images and objects. While many Minimalist and post-Minimalist artists reveled in the innate beauty of systems, Pindell shows us that even the most abstract-looking design may be tied to a structure of infinite complexity, as it is in astronomy, or social injustice, as it was in the red circles on the bottom of those root beer mugs.

Martha Schwendener